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.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. 42 Pearls and counting: I recently discovered that the unfinished rosary-like tattoo on my boyfriend’s back gets one new pearl for every girl he sleeps with or dates. He “gave” me four pearls on his back as a “surprise present” for our second year together. Before, I always assumed it was a religious tattoo (he has a lot of tattoos) and never asked, but he volunteered info on almost all the others. So when he did the “surprise” I thought he was joking and just wanted pearls. I laughed. Then I was incredulous. He’s got his sexual and dating history on a rosary on his back, come on. He took it very badly (four pearls is the most any girl got, apparently) and won’t talk to me until I apologize. We’re in our mid-20s, and we’re good together, but am I wrong to think this is a red flag or do I lack empathy?
A: This is genuinely a new one. I have not heard of anything quite like this, and you give me hope that there are still a handful of new things left under the sun. What metric is your boyfriend using for determining how many pearls each girl receives, I wonder? Do your four pearls represent the classical elements, which he finds to be perfectly balanced in you? The four cardinal virtues of antiquity, which he feels you embody? Are you, I don’t know, four times better than anyone else he’s ever slept with?
I don’t see how your boyfriend’s tattoo is anything other than ridiculous, and the fact that he refuses to speak to you until you apologize for not finding the sexual scorekeeping affixed to his back somehow complimentary to you speaks volumes about him. What on Earth would you apologize to him for? “Darling, I’m terribly sorry that I insufficiently appreciated your sacrifice in permanently commemorating how much better I am in bed than your previous girlfriends on your back, in pearl form, without asking me if I wanted you to. What a fool I’ve been.” Do nothing of the sort. The tattoo itself is silly, but not necessarily a reason to end an otherwise good relationship. The real red flag is the petulant, absurd tantrum he’s decided to throw because you feel insufficiently honored by the creepy romantic scorecard he’s etched into his back.
Q. Throuple: My partner and I recently added a third guy to our relationship. It’s not a casual thing—we are dating him with a goal of having a lasting relationship. So my approach has been to be open about telling people when they ask, “What’s new?” This is new, and it’s important. I’m not bragging about a threesome I had; this is a budding relationship of two months. Is it oversharing or TMI? I told a few work friends, who I would definitely discuss a new boyfriend with, and my family knows. Did I go too far?
A: Not necessarily. “I’d discuss this person if he were my only boyfriend” is perhaps not the best metric for deciding what you’d share at work, because the level of disclosure appropriate for work is often vastly different from what one might reasonably share with a nonwork friend or family member. Consider keeping discussion of your new relationship to a minimum at the office. But if you’re out to your friends and family and want to discuss the new man in your life (it sounds like you plan on living fairly out with him as a rule, rather than pretending he’s a roommate or a good friend), I don’t think it’s oversharing to tell the truth about your relationship.
Q. Tell on a cheater?: I’m good friends with a recently married couple, “Mary” and “Mike.” They are great separately, but they have a tumultuous relationship that makes all of our mutual friends uncomfortable—they bicker constantly and put each other down in front of friends (we are all in our 30s and not prone to drama). Mike has also tried to flirt with me in the past. A few weeks ago, we got together and I brought along my friend Sara, who is single and new to this town. Apparently the minute Mary and I left, Mike told Sara he was attracted to her, kissed her out of the blue, and they ended up making out. He told her that he and Mary never had sex, he was really unhappy and never should have gotten married. He also told her not to tell me (Sara was very drunk and Mike was sober). Sara told me anyhow and was horrified by what she did and begged me not to tell anyone. I also remembered a situation a few months ago where the wife of one of Mike and Mary’s friends was very drunk and accused Mike of trying to kiss her. We all thought she was just being drunk and dramatic, but now I’m wondering if this is a pattern.
I always thought I would tell a friend if her husband was cheating on her, but now that I’m actually confronted with it, I’m conflicted. I don’t want to be the one to get in the middle of it and possibly ruin their lives. I also don’t want to betray Sara’s trust and I think Mary might confront Sara and maybe get physical if she found out (Mary has told me some “crazy ex-girlfriend” stories). But I’m also afraid that if it comes out and I knew, Mary and other mutual friends will be really angry at me for not saying anything. I can’t talk it through with any of our other friends because I think they might feel obligated to tell Mary regardless. I feel like I’m in an impossible position here and I have no idea what I should do!
A: Why on Earth are you friends with these awful people? Mike and Mary are putting on a free tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf every night (but no one’s saying anything to them about it), Mike appears to soberly select drunk women to try to prey upon (but no one’s saying anything to him about it), you suspect Mary of being willing to get violent over her husband’s suspected infidelities (but no one’s saying anything about it to her), you yourself have experienced Mike’s advances (but you’re not saying anything) yet were unwilling to believe another woman when she said he’d tried to hit on her too. You have not mentioned a single redeeming quality (aside from they’re “great” separately, which I’m skeptical of) in these people that would justify this sort of nightmare carnival. I think perhaps you should re-evaluate your stance that you and your circle of friends are “not prone to drama,” and while you’re at it, re-evaluate your circle of friends. Whether or not you decide to tell Mary—it’s clear her marriage is in absolute shreds, regardless—ask yourself why keeping silent about unpleasant topics is so much more important to you than honesty, kindness, respecting the boundaries of others, and general good manners. Sort yourself out.
Q. Friend’s new dog didn’t like me: My wife and I were very happy to meet another couple with kids about the same age as ours who live very close to us. We meet frequently for play dates, the kids are best friends, and the husband and I do similar work, so we have lots to talk about. They both, however, have a bit of social anxiety and depression; they also talk about how tight money is, though given their spending habits and the number of vacations they go on, I don’t think it’s THAT tight. Normally these are not issues at all, and we get along just fine. However, a month ago, they were visiting the wife’s father in the hospital a few hours away and they asked me to let their dogs out. They have two dogs: an older one that I had met before and a 4-year-old rescue. To make a long story short, the new rescue dog did not like me at all, and in the process of getting the dogs back in the house, it bit me hard. I went to the ER, and while I’m fine now, I just got the ER bill for over $600. I know legally they probably have to pay, but my wife and I are not sure how they would take it. We can afford it, but don’t really think we should have to. But we also don’t want to lose friends over this.
A: If my dog had bitten a good friend who was doing me a favor, I would be mortified and want more than anything else to pay for any damages. If your friends are aware that their dog bit someone (you did tell them, right?), presumably they’re eager to make things right, as well as have their rescue dog given special training until it can be trusted around people. While I don’t recommend opening with “legally you’re obligated to pay this,” I do think it’s entirely fair for you to tell them you received a bill for your medical expenses and to ask them to pay for it. If they need to pay you on installments, fine: Your friendship is more important than getting $600 immediately as a lump sum. But if they balk entirely, or suggest that you were somehow at fault for getting bitten, you have bigger problems than a medical bill.
Q. Far-away family: My grandmother recently was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. My mom asked me to visit my grandmother this summer. I’m not really that close with her or my extended family—they live overseas, I’ve visited them twice in my life and various aunts, uncles, and cousins, and my grandmother have visited about four times total. I like them, but to be honest I don’t have much of a relationship with them. I don’t want to take a 14-hour flight to go see my grandmother who I don’t know that well and spend time with family I don’t know that well while I’m also about to move across the country in the next couple months. I’ve told my mom that I can’t make the trip because of the move, and she sort of accepts my reasoning, but the very next phone call she’ll make the same request. I don’t know how to tell her no more clearly. (I think for her, family is family, and even though I don’t feel the same way, I think me saying that I’m not close with them won’t matter to her.) And her persistence makes me worried that I’m being unreasonable to say no?
A: It would be a kind thing to go. You might not get a lot out of it personally, and it would almost certainly be inconvenient, but it would still be a kind thing to go. Your mother does not make this request of you often, your grandmother hasn’t been cold or cruel to you, you’re not being asked to feign a closeness you don’t feel, and it would not bankrupt you or prevent you from moving a few months from now. Some things are worth doing even at personal inconvenience, even if they don’t benefit us directly, and visiting your dying grandmother is one of them. You aren’t a monster if you don’t go, and you might not regret it bitterly, but—it would still be a kind thing. Consider doing it.
Q. Should I suggest an extra guest?: I’m in my mid-40s and live with my father. (My mom passed away several years ago.) I have a small group of four close friends of similar age who I socialize with. One of my friends invited us all to a cookout at his place while his parents were visiting from out of state. I was thinking that in this case it might make sense if my dad came with me, but it would be rude for me to suggest adding a guest, so I didn’t mention it. As it turned out, I had to call the host with a question a couple of hours before the cookout. Two minutes later he calls me back and says “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but we’ve got plenty of food if your dad wants to come.” By that point, it was moot, because my sister was in town. When I was talking about this with my sister, she felt that if I wanted my dad to come to the cookout, I should have suggested it myself. Any thoughts?
A: There’s nothing rude about asking an old friend if you can bring a family member to a cookout. You’re not bringing along an uninvited guest to a destination wedding, you’re asking to bring your father to an informal get-together for friends and family. Feel free to ask without guilt in the future.
Q. Am I too overprotective?: My mother was overprotective of my siblings and I as we grew up and was extremely concerned about our safety and cleanliness; however, I feel we’re all turning out to be pretty normal adults. I am the only sibling that has children, and I’m definitely not as protective or strict as my mom, but I do set boundaries and want people to be safe with my kids. My sister has a lot of anger toward our mom and how she parented us, and applauds me when she feels I’m “doing the opposite of what Mom would do.” I’ve recently had a few experiences where my sister has done things with my kids that I’ve specifically asked her not to do, like roughhousing or feeding them foods I don’t want her to. (Both my kids are under 3.) My sister would love to babysit my children, but it drives me crazy thinking of what could be happening that I don’t know about. Am I too overprotective? How can I get my sister to respect my boundaries?
A: If you think your sister’s interest in babysitting has more to do with her desire to work out her resentment toward your mother than any genuine interest in your children, then feel free to tell her, “Thanks, we’re all set for babysitters this week!” whenever she asks to spend time with them without you. If you’ve asked your sister not to roughhouse with your toddlers and she continues to do so, the only way you can get her to respect your boundaries is by setting them further away. “I love you, and I love how much fun you have with the kids, but I won’t leave them alone with someone who can’t adhere to some pretty basic ground rules” is a perfectly reasonable, neither-over-nor-underprotective rule to have. They’re your children, and if you’re not comfortable leaving your sister alone with them, then stick to supervised visits with a clear conscience.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! May all of your tattoos be judiciously inked and met with widespread approval. See you next week.