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.)
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Mallory Ortberg: The place is made ready. The people are washed and adorned. The time is at hand. Let’s chat.
Q. My wealthy family allowed me to be a homeless teen: When I was a teen, my mother threw me out for getting in the way of her drug-dealing boyfriend. I hopped from couch to couch until I ran out of couches. I slept in my car until it was towed. And then I slept in alleyways, behind dumpsters, and in parks because of the lack of shelters in my area. I even checked myself into a psych ward just for a warm bed and food; I was suicidal, but it was the least of my problems. I had plenty of family with big houses and extra rooms, but no one would allow me to stay. They are the type of people who think these things only happen if you deserve them. Not old enough to sign a lease, I stayed homeless for years, struggling to keep jobs. I feel I had to fight for my life entirely on my own when it would have been nothing for someone to offer me their guest room. I’ve been back on my feet for five years now and live a comfortable life. My family has continued our relationship without missing a beat. I don’t hold a grudge, but sometimes when I visit them, I feel this seething resentment bubble up, especially during the holidays. My fiancé thinks I might be happier cutting ties but understands that I have so little family that I cling to those I do have. I’m at a loss at what to do.
A: Cutting ties with family members, even deeply flawed ones, is a drastic move, and if you don’t think that it would make you substantially happier and healthier, you don’t have to do it. Maybe keeping them at arms’ length—calling every once in a while and getting together for lunch when you’re in town, rather than staying overnight during the holidays—will help you to feel more in control of the terms of your relationship. It may be that, at some point, you will want to have a conversation with your parents about your resentments about the past. If you do choose to go this route, by the way, I recommend seeing a therapist first so you can figure out your goals and expectations for any such conversation, and how you’d likely handle their possible responses. It’s unlikely, after years of radio silence about the subject, that they’d immediately recognize and apologize for their neglect and indifference to your plight, but for your own mental health, you might find the conversation necessary regardless.
Q. Friend’s abusive boyfriend: I’ve had a really good friend for about seven years. She’s been there for a lot of major life milestones. About 10 months ago she started dating a guy who drugged and raped her at her own home. She later tells me his estranged wife, who reports a similar experience, contacts her. After the rape, my friend called me, and I took her to the emergency room. He proceeded to stalk her, and she considered a restraining order. Fast-forward a few months, she is now dating him, got engaged to him, and he’s moving in. I know domestic abuse victims need allies, but I don’t think I can be friends anymore. Does this make me a terrible person?
A: No. It’s one thing to offer her your support, and it’s another thing to spend time with her new boyfriend, a man you know to be a stalker and a rapist, as if he’s just one of the gang. Tell her you’ll always be there for her if and when she’s ready to leave him, and consider whether you’d be able to check in with her via phone or by getting together separately for coffee every once in a while just to see if she’s doing all right, but do not feel guilty for not wanting to spend time with her abuser.
Q. Daughter wants to eat meat: My husband and I are trying to raise our kids in a holistic fashion, emphasizing local produce, home-cooked meals, and nonprocessed foods. My sister does not (and rolls her eyes every time I bring it up). She does make salads and fruit medleys but refuses to abide by our rules when she watches our 9-year-old daughter. Unfortunately we have depended on her for child care for the past year, as all her children are older and go to the same school as my daughter.
My daughter has announced she wants to eat meat like her cousins do, and it has become a large issue for us. My sister refuses to help, saying that she has four other children to look after and that my daughter is old enough to make her own choices when it comes to her meals. And she doesn’t appreciate my judgmental tone. I am stuck in between a rock and a hard place here: Dinnertime is becoming a battleground, but we can’t afford not to let my sister watch our daughter. After-school care runs up to $1,300 dollars a month in our area, and we would have to get another car. Can you see any way out?
A: If I’ve read your letter correctly, your sister has given you a year’s worth of free child care, which is a deeply generous thing to do. Your daughter has said she’d like to try eating meat, and she’s old enough that she should be allowed to start making small, day-to-day decisions like what she wants to wear and what, within reason, she wants to have for dinner. You are of course free to continue offering profoundly wholesome, vegetarian meals in your own home, but if your daughter wants to eat meat, and your sister wants to cook meat, and you’re asking her to cook said meal for your kid for free—I’m afraid you’re going to have to compromise and let your sister cook what she wants in her own home. (Most people, by the way, don’t appreciate judgmental tones; that’s hardly unique to your sister.)
Q. Child-free by choice: My husband and I are child-free by choice. While my family knows and supports our decision, I’ve learned that my husband has not informed his extended family. He has told me that he doesn’t want to get into the discussion with them. When they ask when we’re having kids, he simply replies “not yet.” As this conversation happens in another language, I smile and pretend I didn’t hear what was said. I don’t think that it’s right to continue to lie to them, but he doesn’t want to start a fight. It’s his family, so I don’t chime in, though I could. Should he stop lying and tell them we’re never having kids, or am I stuck smiling while I drink my wine and ignore the conversation going on next to me?
A: This sounds like the kind of conversation lying was invented for. You and your husband have made your child-free status clear to your immediate family and friends—namely, people you’re close with and who are deeply involved in your life. When you spend time around extended family, who you presumably don’t see as often and aren’t interested in getting into a long argument with about the merits of child rearing, your husband politely fobs them off with, “No, not yet,” and the conversation marches on. If no one’s laboring under the delusion they’re going to become a grandparent any day now, it sounds like a workable solution (for now) to me. If you’re deeply committed to having it out, consider learning your in-laws’ language well enough to tell them yourself, and to answer any follow-up questions. Otherwise, your husband’s strategy seems to be working just fine.
Q. Should I stay, or should I go now?: I’m a gay lady currently dating/living with a bisexual woman who’s recently separated from her husband. We were friends first, “gal pals” second. The last couple of months, she’s been emotionally and physically distant. I attributed it to stress about her new job and new living arrangements, and tried to be as supportive as possible while still giving her plenty of space. I recently discovered that she downloaded Kik and has been using it to chat with random men. She also told me while she was drunk that she’s more sexually attracted to men than she is to me. I don’t really know what to do at this point. I love her deeply, but I deserve better than this and she deserves to be with someone she’s attracted to. I would appreciate your opinion. Should we stick together and try to work it out (which is what she wants), or should I cut my losses and break off the romantic relationship?
A: BREAK UP. Break up, oh my god, you poor darling, break up. There’s nothing left to try to work out; she’s not sufficiently attracted to you to keep from trawling for new romantic partners in the home you both share. Do it kindly, but do it now. You two are not compatible. It sounds like this woman has seen you more as a shoulder to cry on and a place to stay while she goes through a divorce than a girlfriend, and you deserve better than that. Find someone who is not distant, who is interested in closeness, who is wildly attracted to you, and who downloads Kik in order to send you messages of profound devotion and sexual extravagance.
Q. Foster caring: My husband and I have accepted children in our home since we have become foster parents. We are an older couple who take in teens. I absolutely feel so fulfilled in doing this. What do I say to people that keep questioning my reasons for doing this such as, “Why would you want to do that?” and “Why do you want to be tied down?” What is a final shut-it-down response to them? I do not want to explain my awful childhood and how I want to help these kids as their circumstances are none of anyone’s business. Can you please give me some comeback tips? We will be seeing some of these people again shortly.
A: I hope you don’t have to see these people often, because I’d hate to think of your closest friends being both so unimaginative and so boorish. “Because we particularly wished it” should be a good enough answer to almost any question beginning with “Why,” but if they’re especially interested in dissecting something that brings you joy, might I suggest, “We thought it would make us happy to bring a child into the house, and it has, and we’ve particularly appreciated the support we’ve gotten from friends and family.” If that doesn’t shame them into politeness (or at least silence), you have my full permission to get a bit shirty, and tell them, “If you can’t at least be polite about our foster-children, let’s talk about something else until you can get hold of your manners again.”
Q. Difficult adult son: My 20-year-old son has started hanging around kids that do drugs, have multiple piercings, tattoos, etc. I know he is smoking marijuana, but I am terrified that his habit will turn into something worse such as heroin or meth. He avoids me as much as possible and won’t answer phone calls or texts from his father at all (we are divorced). He will be 21 next month. What can I do legally to either get him out of this town and away from these friends or get him some help, which he would not voluntarily attend. He is an adult after all. I can’t sleep over this.
A: I encourage you to seek therapy to deal with these overwhelming feelings. A 20-year-old man who smokes marijuana and has tattooed friends is not an emergency, and your panicked fears that his weed-smoking will turn into a heroin addiction is completely unfounded, and if you are considering trying to separate your son from his friends, move him out of town, or get him into treatment he appears not to need in the least, I understand why he avoids you as much as possible. I’m sure you care for him a great deal, but your paranoia about perfectly normal youthful behavior isn’t protecting your son—it’s pushing him away. You should not be losing sleep over this—something’s wrong, but it’s not your son. Seek help for your obsessive thoughts, and allow your son to grow up and turn into his own person, separate from either you or his father.
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