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 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: Ahoy-hoy! Let’s chat.
Q. Hairy upper lip: I’ve been with my wonderful wife for over seven years. She’s always had a bit of facial hair on her upper lip (think a little peach fuzz but a bit darker). This never bothered me, and honestly I didn’t even notice it usually. Recently though it has gotten darker/fuller. At best it distracts me and other times it becomes somewhat of a turnoff. I’m not sure why this has changed (change in medications, natural process, etc.), but I’m torn if I should say anything. I don’t want to upset her or have her think I’m not attracted to her (I am), but I also don’t love the idea of this staring back. She has some issues with self-confidence and generally accepting suggestions (something we’re both getting help with and improving on). Any suggestions on supportive/diplomatic ways to bring this up, or should I focus more on working on looking past it?
A: This letter felt fairly supportive and diplomatic, actually! You love your wife, you’re not an obsessive perfectionist who has made a habit out of asking her to change the distribution of hair on her body, but you’ve recently noticed a change in the hair over her upper lip and wonder if she’d consider waxing/bleaching/depilating/threading/removing it. You know your wife better than I do, and presumably know how she feels about unsolicited comments about something she might not have noticed. I’d want to know if I’d developed a slight mustache; others might not; still others might not care in the least. There’s no way to dress this request up as some sort of compliment—accept that you’re asking her to do something that will make her feel, at the least, a bit self-conscious—but you can still be kind, respectful, and keep things in perspective while making your request. If she’s particularly lacking in confidence right now, I’d hold off on the conversation until she’s regained some of her self-assurance, especially since it’s a fairly cosmetic issue. But if you’re going to do it, keep your tone neutral and make it clear that this is not some weighty issue that you’ve been holding back for ages. It’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things, and if she doesn’t want to get rid of the hair, drop it. You can make the request, but you can’t insist. (Time, and encroaching body hair, will come for us all.)
Q. Distant brother … but not with others: My favorite brother—I am his favorite and only sister—and I have been close for most of our lives. He and I even lived together, off and on, over a 25-year period, while I was raising my daughter. He’s a great uncle, brother, friend, gentleman. We laugh a lot and treat each other with respect. My issue is that for years he has either never answered a voicemail (or takes months to do so) and now he will answer a text with “!” or not at all … yet he has a friend-girl in the city where he lives and I know from being with him on visits that he constantly responds to her. I’m about to fly down for a short visit, and I have long wanted to have a conversation with him about this disparity and how it makes me feel, and to ask him what keeps him from being responsive to me. For what it’s worth, I rarely text—just when it’s information he needs or some little nicety—and I have been circumspect with voicemails and emails in days gone by. I do not pester, nor am I a drama queen. It’s just stuff like “what’s your itinerary?,” after which I drum my fingers and try to stay Zen about being last on his list of correspondents. Is it worth having a sit-down?
A: It’s certainly worth talking to your brother about how slow he is to answer texts and calls, but I don’t think you should do so by invoking how quickly he texts back his girlfriend, nor by the strange circumlocution “friend-girl.” Girlfriends and sisters fall under rather separate terms of engagement, and you can focus on how your brother’s nonresponsive responses make you feel without asking him to account for the differences in how he treats you and the women he dates.
Q. He says I’m his buddy: I’m a guy, and I have been seeing this man for almost two years now and he’s everything I have ever dreamed of. He listens to me, he remembers my birthday, he spends time with me, he takes me out, our sex life is phenomenal, and he’s introduced me to his family. The problem? He says that he isn’t gay, he has a girlfriend, and he introduces me as his “buddy.” Now, I understand not wanting to come out for safety reasons, but he claims that he’s only “gay in bed.” I’ve met his girlfriend (who is beautiful), but she is asexual so they don’t have sex. She knows that we have sex, and she’s fine with it. It just feels odd to me. I feel like I’m in a relationship, but he says we’re just friends. My friend says I’m being petty. I’m the one he takes home for the holidays, because his girlfriend spends the holidays with her own parents. I’m the one he introduces to all his friends; though he introduces me as his “buddy.” He talks to me on the phone, and we flirt, and sext, and sometimes he just sends me random messages saying that he’s thinking of me and he misses me. He even says that he loves me before he hangs up the phone. Maybe I should just be happy with what we have … but I’m not. I want him to admit that we’re dating; even if he doesn’t say it to anyone else, I just want him to say it to me. What should I do? I don’t want to break up with him because I really love him. But I also don’t want to waste my time if all I’ll ever be is his friend.
A: In no particular order: Your friends are wrong, you are not being petty; “remembering your birthday” and “having good sex” and “capable of listening” are all great things to have in a relationship, but I promise you they are not some spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime qualities you can only find in this particular man; your friends are wrong (I had to say it twice). Maybe “only gay in bed” is a thing, but all the conversations and birthday-celebrating and family-meeting and loving texting that’s going on are hardly bedroom-exclusive activities. Your boyfriend isn’t just “gay in bed,” he’s gay (or bisexual) with, and at, and on, and near you, an awful lot. You’d like to be in a relationship with someone who’s willing to admit you’re dating. That’s neither petty nor unreasonable. If he’s not able to admit you two are going out, even just to you, you need to ask yourself whether you’re willing to go through another two (or four, or six, or 10) years of being his “buddy” in public and his boyfriend in everything but name. It sounds like the status quo is making him pretty happy, and I don’t see any signs that he’s likely to change them. You might not want to break up, but I promise you, there are other men in the world who are capable of remembering your birthday, introducing you to their families, listening to you when you speak, and having great sex, all while calling themselves your boyfriend. Go find one.
Q. Burned again: About four years ago I found out that my wife had been unfaithful. I picked up her phone and noticed a message and just like that my whole life came undone. She eventually admitted to an affair with another man, sex with a mutual friend before we got married, and various other indiscretions. I’m no angel, but I was faithful since we were engaged and had even been honest about all wrongdoings before we wed. I stuck it out for the sake of the kids and went to therapy, etc., before settling on an agreement that would point us in the right direction. I forgave her with one caveat, no more lying. I can handle anything but lies. Fast-forward to last week: I opened my laptop and saw she had messaged a man and met for drinks late at night. I’m crushed. I tiptoed around the subject to give her a chance to come clean. I even had her tell me exactly what he did that night. Still nothing until I confronted her directly. She swears nothing happened, but I just can’t believe her. I want to stay with my kids, but my heart is so heavy I can’t even breathe. Where do I go from here?
A: I think you should leave your wife.
Q. Best friend or frenemy?: I have been best friends with “Carrie” for 10 years. We clicked as soon as we met. For the longest time she was the yin to my yang. Then she started dating a guy, and she went MIA for two years. As soon as they broke up, she was back in my life. I forgave her for her absence, and things seemingly fell back into place. Then a few years later I met my now-boyfriend at a party Carrie threw (they work together). I’ve tried to stay in her life, because I don’t want to disappear into a relationship. “Carrie” started putting a wall up after I started dating him. It’s gotten to the point where we don’t speak, she doesn’t invite me to girls’ nights, and she will criticize my relationship with my boyfriend to my boyfriend when they are at work. Should I try to talk to her, or should I just cut the cord?
A: I think you should talk to her, but only because it seems like there’s not much of a friendship left to lose in case things go badly. If she reacts poorly, you haven’t lost much. Tell her you’re not sure why she’s stopped responding to you since you started dating your boyfriend, and ask her what’s wrong. If she’s willing to be honest, maybe the two of you can talk it out and reconnect. If she’s not, then you’re already hardly speaking, so not much will change. By the way, your boyfriend should tell her to stop criticizing you when they’re at work together, instead of (presumably) bringing the criticism home to you. At the very least, she needs to knock that behavior off immediately.
Q. Dead names?: This is a ridiculous and self-involved problem, but it’s real to me. Someone I used to know has started work at my company. However, we knew one another before she transitioned—and she doesn’t seem to recognize me now. So I am completely flustered about the next step. In my head, every tactic has a greater-than-normal chance of hurting this person. I can say “Hi! It’s [my name] from university!” and make her feel outed, or pretend I don’t recognize her and run the risk that she thinks it’s because I have a problem with her. Or, to be fair, she just doesn’t want to admit knowing me in case I try and make her go potholing. I am 95 percent certain it’s the same person, the only thing that’s changed is the first name—field, hobbies, tattoos are all the same.
A: I think what’s most difficult for you here is the prospect of giving offense by appearing either overly friendly (and thereby implying you know something about her she might not want to discuss at work) or by appearing needlessly standoffish (and thereby implying that you’re transphobic). You’re not looking to satisfy some prurient curiosity, you just want to make sure you don’t make your new co-worker feel uncomfortable or uneasy. Since you don’t yet know whether she’s out at work, or if she’s comfortable discussing her years at university (and you’re only 95 percent sure that she’s the person you used to know—it is possible, if not probable, that you are mistaken) be friendly but let her take the lead on any discussions of her college years or personal life. If, after you’ve gotten to know one another a bit better as colleagues, you feel comfortable saying, “I think we might have gone to College X—it’s wonderful to see you again,” but it’s much better to err on the side of friendly-but-professional distance at work, at least until you’ve gotten some signals that a discussion of your college years would be welcome.
Q. Baby woes: My partner is being supercondescending to me about having a baby. I’m in an incredibly stressful professional school, and it’s generally acknowledged that the last year of the program is a good time to have a baby. I’m 32, so I feel like the clock is ticking, and after this next year I won’t really have “time” for another two years. When I try to discuss this with my partner, his reason for not wanting to have a baby next year is that I’ve “already had enough trouble in school,” which I think is condescending, paternalistic, etc. I’ve struggled in this program, yes, but I’ve gotten through it and am doing much better. I think it’s up to me to determine if I’m “ready” for a baby, not him. Am I being fair?
A: It sounds like your partner is not trying to suggest reasons you aren’t ready for a baby, but reasons that he is not ready. If he feels that he is not ready to have a baby with someone who is stressed out, impatient, and demanding—even if you disagree with his characterization of your behavior—then he has a right to say so, and you owe it to him to listen. You might be ready for a baby. He might not be. You need both parties on board in order to have a child.
Q. Birthday ruiner: I think I behaved badly last night. My friends and I went to a restaurant, which was both small and noisy. We spoke loudly enough to hear each other but weren’t screaming; other people in the restaurant spoke at the same volume. As we were finishing our meal, an elderly woman came to our table and told us we’d ruined her birthday. We, like many people of our late-20s age, were far too noisy, especially my friend Annie. The woman told Annie that she in particular was bad and needed to do something about herself. I talked back to her and said, “Don’t speak to her like that, and don’t single her out.” The woman yelled at me that she’d speak to us however she wanted and then yelled at a waitress that we were horrible, terrible girls. I wish the woman had said something to us during her meal; we would have been happy to quiet down. But I’m also not someone who believes that older people should be given deference when they’re being rude. Should I have let the woman have her say?
A: You could have said “I wish you had spoken up during our meal; we would have been happy to quiet down then.” Waiting until dinner was over and telling you she thought you were too loud after the fact made it impossible for you to apologize, change your behavior, or do anything at all. She was rude, and although it’s better not to return rudeness for rudeness, your asking her not to snap at your friend was remarkably restrained, given the context. Based on the older woman’s response—she’d “speak to you however she wanted” and called you “horrible, terrible girls”—I think she was looking for a reason to yell at someone, and wanted to berate young people for having a good time, and she found it. She didn’t actually want you to quiet down. If she had, she’d have spoken to you during the meal, or asked management to ask you to speak more quietly. She wanted to deliver a vicious lecture, and she found a way to make it happen. You were not responsible for her outburst, and should give yourself credit for responding with as much restraint as you did.