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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail 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 lightly turn our fancy to thoughts of advice.
Q. LOUD neighbor: I’ve recently moved into a row house in an urban setting. Recently, my next-door neighbor sent an email about HOA business to everyone in our row of houses, and I discovered that she has me in her contact list under the alias “LOUD neighbor.” I’ve thought long and hard about whether it’s possible that I’m too loud. I do have two grade school–aged sons, but they are in bed by 8 p.m. We don’t play music. We don’t have a dog. We don’t bounce balls against the shared wall. We don’t have parties. We do not have loud domestic arguments. We’re noisy enough (in a normal way) that I’m sure “LOUD neighbor” is not meant to be an ironic label. This is a noisy neighborhood with a city bus stop and a bar across the street and a train several blocks away. There should be no expectation of absolute quiet. I’m concerned that the neighbor expects us to live our lives like the Frank family hiding from the Nazis and tiptoeing about on stocking feet lest we be discovered. When we first moved in, I introduced myself and said, “Let us know if we’re too noisy.” This isn’t how I meant for her to let us know. What do you think? Should I put her in my contacts as “UPTIGHT neighbor”? Should I confront her? Should I buy my sons a drum set?
A: I think before you go the drum set–buying route (or compare yourself to Anne Frank again), you should simply ask your neighbor if everything’s all right. This is a garden-variety, everyday sort of conflict. There’s no need to make a meal out of it. “Anne, thanks for your email update the other day. I noticed that we’re listed in your contacts as ‘Loud neighbors,’ and while I’m a bit embarrassed to bring it up because I’m sure it was unintentional, I wanted to check in and see if there was anything you wanted to talk about. We do our best to keep the noise down, especially after bedtime, and I hope you know you can talk to us if you have any questions or concerns.” She’ll feel chagrined at having her passive-aggressive filing system noted, you’ll get the chance to learn if you’ve been unintentionally causing a noise problem, and you’ll feel better for having frankly discussed what was clearly meant as a secret dig. Never buy a drum kit in anger, only in peace.
Q. Ex-wife alienating my kids: Last year, my wife and I finalized our divorce. Our marriage had been limping along for years, but I was committed to my kids. She is the one who filed first. She is the one who asked me to leave. No one had an affair, and no one was abusive. We were two people who had been too unhappy for too long. I thought we could be co-parents and be civil with each other while our kids were involved.
That all changed once I got serious with my new girlfriend. We have plans to get married; I haven’t felt this alive in years. Then my 10-year-old daughter called my girlfriend a “whore” to her face and destroyed the gift my girlfriend got her in front of us. During the incident, my son let it slip that his mother had been telling them that my girlfriend was the reason for the divorce and that I had been having an affair and got caught. I didn’t even meet my girlfriend until after divorce was finalized. I didn’t handle this well, I admit. I told both of my kids the truth, that their mother was a liar, and it got ugly once I got my ex on the phone.
Since then she has been screwing with the custody arrangement, claiming the kids are “sick” when it is my weekend or my son wants to quit the baseball team that I coach. My friends tell me to lawyer up and take her court. My girlfriend wants to know if we should cool our relationship because she doesn’t want to alienate my kids from me. I love her and want to marry her. I love my kids and want to be in their lives. I don’t think that having both is unreasonable or outlandish. She isn’t the one alienating my kids from me. I make about three times what my ex makes, even with child support and paying the mortgage on the house. I have the financial means to fight and win primary custody if I try. I have lived through a divorce and remarriage growing up. What makes it difficult isn’t the kids but the adults involved. Lawyering up feels like declaring nuclear war—I don’t want to put my kids through that, but letting my ex drive a wedge between me and my kids isn’t an option either. Can you help me out?
A: I’d love to hear from the divorce lawyers in the audience (and divorce mediators, and anyone willing to recommend an alternative to lawyering up), because this sounds like a terrible situation for both you and your children. If you haven’t already, you and your children should attend family therapy together, since they’ve been through tremendous upheaval and confusion over the past few years. The fact that you’re reluctant to pursue primary custody because you’re afraid of the toll a court battle might take on your kids, to my mind, is exactly what qualifies you to be the primary caregiver. The fact that your ex-wife is willing to lie to her own children about the reasons you two divorced in order to get them to hate your new girlfriend is exactly why I think you ought to sue for custody.
It would be wonderful if you could pursue mediation before hiring a lawyer. If there’s any chance your wife is willing to behave reasonably, I think you should consider mediation, where the two of you meet regularly with a neutral third party to arrive at reasonable, mutually agreed-upon compromises that serve the best interests of your children. If your ex is already coaching your 10-year-old to call your girlfriend a whore and faking illnesses to keep you from spending time with them, I don’t have much faith in her ability to be honest and practical in mediation, but it’s at least worth a try before you pursue your legal options. I do think, however, that you owe it to your children to at least consider those legal options rather than letting the current custody agreement go unchallenged. And whatever else you do, don’t stoop to your ex’s level when it comes to name-calling, subterfuge, or parental alienation. You’ve seen already how painful your ex’s behavior is for your children; don’t try to do the same thing, no matter how justifiably angry she makes you.
Q. Old friend: ”Lisa” was my best friend. The relationship started fading, and I realized I was more invested in it than she was. We had a blowout. I said I felt unappreciated and that I was carrying the friendship for years. The conversation ended with no resolution—basically “oh well” and we’ll carry on. This was the last straw, and I needed to write her off as a friend, in my mind. We have superficial contact now, but I’m still hurting. The problem is our long history: She’s like family to my parents. I’m friends with Lisa’s sisters, so we’re at the same parties and together at Christmas. I buy presents for all their kids. I feel like I’d need to cut back the relationships with Lisa’s family to be emotionally rid of her, and that’s not right. But I’m so upset with Lisa that it’s painful to keep smiling at parties and pretending like nothing’s wrong. Is the answer that I need to carry on the cordial routine, because it would be much worse to burn bridges with her family and to disappoint mine? How can I get over this?
A: The loss of a friendship is always painful and often bewildering. I’m so sorry for the pain you’re currently experiencing, but I don’t think that Lisa’s limitations as a friend warrant cutting off her entire family. You can limit your interactions with them in the short term as you process your feelings of grief while mourning the end of your friendship with Lisa, but I don’t think you’ll ever regret being polite yet distant to her in public. A screaming match or bout of recriminations won’t make you feel better, and I think you should save scorched-earth policies only for the most extreme cases.
Q. Re: Ex-wife alienating my kids: Not a lawyer, but recently divorced. As I understand it, most divorce settlements have a nondisparagement clause written into them. It’s a little unclear to me what the actual enforcement is (there is no consequence specified in mine, and I think that is mostly standard too). The issue where LW more likely has some legal recourse is custodial interference, as courts do have some willingness to step in when parents are violating the terms of a custody arrangement. Step 1 really should be contacting a lawyer. Even mediation is going to require one, and the lawyer is going to know what the options are in LW’s state for correcting the situation. Even a strongly worded letter from the lawyer to the ex might be enough to get her back in line. As far as I’m concerned, the ex-wife has already more or less gone nuclear, and there’s no sense just letting her get away with it, or she’ll just keep it up.
A: Thanks so much for this!
Q. Re: Ex-wife alienating my kids: I am in a similar situation, and although I know it seems wrong, you have to tell your children that your mother is not telling them the truth—in a firm and loving manner that shows that you dislike the actions, not the person. It is so important for your children to know that it is not OK to lie about things like this.
A: That’s an important distinction. The LW mentioned telling his children that their mother was “a liar,” and although I can certainly understand that reaction in the moment, I think it’s worth—for the sake of the children—distinguishing between “Your mother is a liar” and “Your mother lied to you.” The latter suggests that she did something wrong, which is true; the former suggests she is an irredeemably bad person and could exacerbate the situation.
Q. Casual honesty: I have a history of clinical depression and occasional suicidal ideation. (I’m in treatment.) When I’m particularly depressed, I feel even more than usually disconnected from co-workers and neighborhood acquaintances because none of them knows what’s happening in my head. They casually ask, “How are you?” and I say, “OK” or “Fine.” I’m sometimes tempted to say, “Well, I’m deeply depressed, and I’m experiencing intrusive suicidal thoughts (but I’m under care!)” I don’t do that because I don’t think anyone really wants to hear it. That’s correct, isn’t it? It’s not really possible to be honest about something like that?
A: I do think it’s possible to be honest about how you’re feeling, although I don’t want to encourage you to share the details of your depression with co-workers if you have any fear that they might start treating you differently or make working together more difficult. If you want to be honest but not necessarily invite a heart-to-heart conversation, you can always say something closer to the truth: “Things are tough right now, but I’m getting through it.” The standard “Fine” answer is generally considered appropriate for strangers and people you’re not likely to see again; if you want to tell your neighbor that you’re not feeling great right now, you absolutely can. There’s a special kind of despair tied to feeling depressed while telling everyone around you that you’re doing just fine.
I hope, by the way, that there are people in your life (not just doctors and therapists, although I’m glad to hear you’re getting treatment for your depression) that you can give a really honest answer to—friends or family members who can ask, “How are you?” and you can tell the whole truth to. Part of what makes depression so isolating is this belief that no one else should “have to” (or could handle) hearing the truth about what it feels like. Please know that this is not taboo, that you should not feel ashamed for having suicidal thoughts or for seeking treatment, and that your feelings are not a burden to others. You’re doing everything right.
Q. My boyfriend refuses to come out: I’ve been dating my boyfriend for more than a year now. Before that we were part of the same group of friends, and I had a bad crush on him. I thought it was hopeless because he is straight, but then we finally got together, and I was very happy. At first he was confused, so I didn’t push much, and with time we developed a strong relationship. The problem is: Our relationship is completely secretive because he refuses to admit he is gay (or even bi). He says he only loves me so there is no point in coming out of the closet. We live in a liberal area, and his family is not too conservative. It’s driving me crazy. Will he ever admit to “us”? Is this part of a normal coming-out process? I was never in, so I don’t know how it works for late-starters. I also grew up in Europe in a country where being gay is somewhat normalized.
A: This is not part of a normal coming-out process. This is just old-fashioned “staying closeted.” I’m so sorry that your boyfriend is trying to keep you a secret. His argument that there’s “no point” in coming out if he’s only seeing you doesn’t make any sense. Of course there’s a point. The point would be acknowledging you as his boyfriend; letting people know he’s in a happy, healthy relationship; and not forcing you to hide your affection when you’re around other people. You two have been together for a year now. There’s nothing confusing about that. If he’s still not interested in acknowledging your relationship, you have to ask yourself how long you’re interested in staying in the closet with him. I think you should wish him the best and move on.
Q. Chronic pain: What’s the best way to communicate in a compassionate manner with a close friend who has ongoing issues in his or her life that may never change? I’m talking specifically about a friend with a chronic health problem. After asking about it and receiving the response, “Same as always—it sucks,” I tend to feel like it’s a bother to be asked. I’m sensitive to the limitations imposed and try to be aware of good days and bad days. But if I’m made to feel that asking about it is an imposition, is it fair that I’m challenged about not caring when I don’t ask?
A: Oh, I think you’re doing everything right here! If her answer is always “It sucks,” then that’s likely because her condition always sucks, not that she resents you for asking about it. But it’s absolutely fine to check in with her. “When I ask about your chronic pain, I hope you know I’m not trying to get regular updates out of you or to intrude in any way. I just want to let you know that I’m thinking of you and that I care about your condition, but if it’s tiresome or repetitive, please let me know, and I’ll just let you bring it up when you feel like discussing it, rather than asking again.” Then trust whatever answer she gives you. It may be that she answers brusquely because she’s tired of being asked about a relatively static level of pain; it may be that she answers brusquely because she doesn’t have anything new to report but still values being asked. The only way to find out is to check in.