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.
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Fourth of July racial assault: Last night I was at a BBQ with my kids and husband. I am a biracial woman (black/Chinese) raised by white parents. My uncle (mother’s brother) is VERY racist; he makes Donald Trump look like Bernie Sanders. That is how bad it is. Usually, I don’t see him, but he made an appearance this year. For the whole night, he kept making snide remarks about my background to other relatives (which I was hearing secondhand as they would run up and tell me after the fact instead of stopping him). I pretty much just ignored it, until he said something about my daughter. After saying she probably wasn’t my daughter since she doesn’t look like a n—-r, my husband and I both lost it, but my husband got there first and punched him. The police were called, my husband was cited (no arrests) and Uncle left. This morning I have a barrage of texts and voicemails saying my husband needs to apologize and make up with Uncle. I am ready to be done with my family all together. Thoughts?
A: Your husband does not need to apologize for punching a man who called his young daughter a vicious racial slur, and you do not need to apologize for cutting off ties with people who would run up to inform you about racist comments as if they were fascinating bits of gossip. They should have spoken up in your defense, not excitedly passed the insults along to you at a party. Frankly, I’m impressed that you and your husband didn’t punch more of your relatives. (I don’t mean to suggest punching solves anything, simply that you were pushed well beyond your limits.) Delete those texts and voicemails and don’t for a moment let yourself be pressured into apologizing for objecting to racist abuse.
Q. Bi-curious and bi-confused: Over the past year or so, two things have happened: 1) after years of questioning and repressing various feelings, I’ve finally come to terms with my bisexuality, and 2) I’ve realized that I might be in love with my best guy friend, “Sam” (I’m a woman). Admitting feelings for a platonic friend is always a bag of worms, but my situation has an additional worm: I’ve never been with another woman and would like to explore that aspect of my sexuality, but I would also like to try and be with Sam (and my suspicion is that, if he reciprocates my feelings, it could be an enduring relationship). Sam isn’t going anywhere, but my college years (prime experimenting time, of course) are. What should I pursue first—hypothetical happiness with some hypothetical woman or potential-but-by-no-means-guaranteed happiness with my friend?
A: I’m always a little wary when someone says they “might be in love” with a friend. Maybe you are! Maybe you aren’t! I also don’t know why you see your bisexuality as something that comes with an expiration date; implying that once your college years are over, your Queer Card will be revoked and your time of girl-on-girl experimentation will have to come to an end. You can be bisexual for as long as you want! You can date women at literally any age!
If you think you’d like to go out with Sam, ask him out and see what happens; there’s no guarantee that he does return your feelings or that your relationship would last forever, if you decided to embark upon one. If you think you’d rather date other people, particularly other women, casually, then do that. You could even consider dating Sam casually for a while to see if you two are compatible, while also casually dating other people, rather than jumping immediately from a best friendship into a committed romantic relationship. You have more options than “women now, Sam later.”
Q. Flaky marriage counselor: My husband and I have been going through a difficult time, and recently found a marriage counselor who conducts sessions over the phone, which works best with our opposite schedules (one of our issues). The problem is, our first couples session was for this last Sunday, and she never called us as she promised she would. She finally responded two hours later and wanted to have the session then. I told her that the time we were available to talk had passed (she knew this, as I told her how rare and precious the time my husband and I are actually together with our conflicting work schedules is), and she said “Oh, let’s not let anyone carry around guilt over this. Your next session will be complimentary.”
She’s already charged us for four sessions in advance, but I was so put off by 1) her missing our first appointment and 2) acting so nonchalant about our time, that I’m not sure I want to continue. This situation also didn’t help our marriage as we were ready to talk, and being revved up to talk, then flaked on, and ended with us taking out that frustration on each other. We clearly need to talk to someone, but I’m not sure this lady is the right fit. Am I overreacting? Or should I try to get a refund and seek help elsewhere?
A: “Let’s not let anyone carry around guilt over this” is an awfully strange way of saying “Let’s not let anyone criticize me for flaking on my professional obligation.” This woman is not the right therapist for you (or possibly anyone) and you should ask for a refund and look elsewhere.
Q. My mother hates my young son: My younger brother and his wife recently had their first baby. On my drive up north to meet my gorgeous new niece, I called my mom and invited her to lunch. She accepted and we proceed to talk. During our conversation I mentioned that I brought two of my three children with me. My mom quickly said that my youngest son is not welcome to meet his cousin. She proceeded to tell me that my brother and sister-in-law told her this. My mom is known to put her feelings/wants off on other people so I got in touch with my brother. Long story short, my mom dislikes my young son so much that she tried to exclude him from this happy moment by lying. (This is far from the first time she has done this.) I ended up canceling lunch with my mom and told her that if one person in my family is not welcome then no one in my family is welcome. I love my mom, but it’s more and more difficult for me to spend any time with her. It has already gotten to the point that I stay in a hotel when I visit home due to the way she treats my youngest child. I feel bad because her poor behavior has affected my relationship with my dad who loves all three of my children equally. I am considering writing a letter to my mom to tell her how I feel. (She doesn’t use the internet.) How should I move forward? She’s my mom and I love her, but he’s my son and I need to protect him.
A: I’m assuming that your young child has not committed any sort of violent crime that would preclude him from being around his cousins, and that your mother’s irrational dislike of him is unfounded and cruel. You’re absolutely right to prioritize your son’s well-being over your mother’s favoritism, and I think you should write a letter explaining that her treatment of your child is the reason you cannot allow her to be a part of your life. If your father loves all three of your children equally, I’m not sure why he allows your mother to spread lies about her own grandchild in order to exclude a little boy from family get-togethers. He may love them, but his love lacks backbone. If your mother can’t treat your son like the rest of his siblings, and if your father is unwilling or unable to keep from going along with her bad behavior, I don’t think you have much of a choice here—it would be deeply cruel to expose your son to this kind of treatment any longer.
Q. Feeling single in a couple: My boyfriend has recently and drastically scaled back our time together. Communication between us is fraught and irregular. He doesn’t sleep well. More seriously, he’s had two recent alcohol-fueled (thankfully not involving other people or physical harm to him) car accidents. Mental health professionals I know say he is likely depressed. He says he is in crisis due to an upcoming milestone birthday. Everything bores him and he is questioning the meaning of life and is afraid of the future. In parallel I suspect he may be having some degree of affair with another woman. I accidently found out about her existence, and she has popped up several times since. When I ask who she is, he either obfuscates or denies that anything is going on, but it is not reassuring, particularly because I met him when he was with someone else. (He sold his situation very differently to me back then.) I am getting to a breaking point. I’ve tried talking to him about a way forward for him or us, but he has no clear answers. He reads my attempts at honest discussion as the beginnings of an argument. I love him and he is the first person I’ve wanted a future with, but I have big doubts now. I’m not afraid of working hard, but so far I feel like I’ve been doing all the work. How can I foster a frank discussion about us—about moving forward, or possibly moving on—without being shut down?
A: I can’t promise you that your boyfriend won’t shut you down. In fact, I think it’s highly likely that he will, and no matter how you attempt to broach this topic, you’re going to end up realizing that this relationship is already over. But at least you can say that you gave it your best shot! Any one of these problems by themselves—multiple drunk-driving accidents, an unexpected disappearance, (possible) sudden-onset untreated depression, the mysterious appearance of another woman—would be a significant roadblock in any relationship. All of them together, combined with his refusal to discuss them honestly, sound like certain doom to me. But you have nothing to lose at this point, because you’re already effectively single. Go ahead and tell him that you’re at the end of your rope, and that unless he’s willing to have (likely a series) of frank discussions about his many problems, you won’t be able to continue this (non-) relationship. It will almost certainly go badly, and you’ll be able to walk away knowing you at least attempted to help your boyfriend.
Q. What if I’m the jerk?: I have a dear old friend who, since seeing a therapist for the past few years, is more confident, assertive, and happy. But the flipside is that now she is kind of insufferable as a result. Examples: frequent announcements of how she’s working like a dog (subtext: she works harder than anyone else), hung out at home last night because she’s so exhausted by going out every night last week (because everyone wants to see her and she’s cultured), having trouble finding someone “intellectual and creative enough” for her (she’s very creative, and everyone else who managed to partner up has lower standards than she does). Moments of generosity are always tinged with an air of self-satisfaction. She is oblivious to how she comes across, and if she ever understood how she was seen she would be devastated. When she’s said things to me that subtly make me feel inferior I know she both does and doesn’t mean it. There are a few friends in the community who have expressed similar feelings. But she’s an old friend and we do care about her. Her gratitude to her therapist is huge and she really feels like she has come into her own with this person’s help. But I wonder—is this therapist helping her that much at all?
So my question is twofold: 1) Do I tell my friend how she comes across, knowing how it’ll devastate her, and that her therapist isn’t helping? If yes, how on Earth do I do it? 2) I’m the one who introduced her to this therapist! I saw the same therapist on and off for years and she was a huge help to me. She’s seen several other friends of mine too, who rave about her. But if my friend is oblivious and annoying because of this therapist, what if I am too? What if I’m the jerk? How can I tell if therapy has helped me or if it’s turned me into an ass?
A: I’m not sure that your friend is as insufferable as you think! It’s possible I’m missing a great deal by not hearing the tone of her comments, but nothing you’ve mentioned sounds especially irritating. If anything, you seem to be reading a great deal too much into her comments about working hard and going out. If, in the moment, you catch her implying that other people don’t have high standards, or have somehow let themselves down by finding a romantic partner she wouldn’t approve of, then by all means, say something, but I don’t know that you need to tell her she’s become a monster. Moreover, her seeing a therapist is, by almost all definitions, working—you yourself admit that your friend has become happier and more confident. If the side effect is that she occasionally comes across as smug, you can certainly offer her feedback, but it doesn’t mean she needs to abandon therapy altogether, or that she’s not better off now than she was a year ago.
Q. Moral obligations of a rape victim: I am a 28-year-old woman who was raped at home by a “friend.” I was in such a state of shock that I didn’t even process what happened for about a month, when I ran into him at a mutual friend’s party and lost it—I ended up in a mental health crisis center and have been in therapy. During this process I have been to an STD clinic, seen my doctor, and told my university adviser and close friends—everyone has told me I am obligated to report, but I am really not doing well as it is, and I cannot even imagine dealing with police and the courts … He had also left the country, as he was here only as a student. What is my obligation morally as a victim of rape?
A: Your moral obligation as the victim of a crime is primarily to yourself. You are not responsible for the actions, past or future, of your rapist, and therefore can be under no moral imperative to report if you do not think it would be in your own best interest. You may choose to report, but deciding not to, at least for the present, would not be an act of moral negligence or shared culpability. If you decide to report, I would encourage you to enlist your therapist or a rape advocate to accompany you; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) is an excellent resource, and can help you find out about the statute of limitations in your state or particular concerns about the reporting process. Your primary concern should be your own mental health and well-being; I wish you all the best in taking care of yourself.