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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Q. Student-teacher weirdness: I teach at a small liberal arts college where the work climate is fairly chill. There is a student who I have a teasing friendship with. He is not in my department, but he sometimes hangs out in my office and will occasionally join the group for lunch. It has recently been brought to my attention by a colleague that another faculty member has noticed and commented on the excessive amount of time I have been spending around this student. She (the colleague) advised me to separate myself from the student immediately, because the situation was bordering on inappropriate. (The student and I also happen to both be gay men—he is 19, and I am 40.) I’ve kind of had an “a-ha!” moment over this, and I realize now that I’ve gotten lax. Even the appearance of impropriety or favoritism can cause trouble, and I intend to simply end the behavior. My question is this: Should I explain any of this to the student? I am willing to just be cordially professional to him, but knowing I’m under scrutiny over this makes me not even want him in my office. Should I send him an email saying, “Hey, we can still be friends, just not at school?” And see, obviously that sounds creepy as hell too. Any advice?
A: What you’ve described sounds to me like a mostly innocent transgression (thus far), although I think you’re right to take your colleague’s advice and scale back without making any sort of announcement to the student in question. Part of your job is to model appropriate boundaries with students, and although you two can continue to banter during group lunches, I think you should focus on minimizing alone time and on making sure that you don’t turn your office hours into a social hour with students outside your department. If he stops by, you can let him know that your office hours are for students in your classes with questions about their work and that you’re not available to socialize. Presumably you can do so in a warm but clear tone, one that doesn’t make him feel berated for doing something you’ve allowed in the past, but that also makes it obvious that things can’t continue as they did. Practice the art of polite distancing that should be in the arsenal of every professional.
The email you describe—“We can still be friends, just not at school”—seems to me like a slightly dangerous attempt to continue to thread the needle. It implies that you’d like to continue your current closeness off-campus and away from your colleague’s eyes, which might invite a sort of clandestine, forbidden aspect to your interactions that you’re not interested in fostering. If your intention truly is to “end the behavior,” as you say, I don’t think you should admit in writing that you’ve allowed this student to cross lines you shouldn’t have or encourage him (however indirectly) to seek you out off-campus. Writing the email would be itself an act of intimacy, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to encourage. Remain friendly but enforce appropriate boundaries. If he asks, you can be direct, but you don’t have to volunteer information when you can simply set a better tone.
Q. We had money, once: Before the recession my husband and I were doing incredibly well. We both had six-figure jobs and didn’t think we’d ever have to worry about money. That all changed. First my husband lost his job, then I did. We went through our savings and had to sell most of our possessions at a loss. It was a horrible time. Things were getting better (I had found a decent job, and my husband had a firm offer) when he was diagnosed with cancer. His job offer fell through, and it was another few years of struggle. Now my husband is in remission but can’t work. I still work and will probably have to stay in the workforce well past retirement age just to make sure we are taken care of. We have downsized to the point where we are living in a small apartment, with just one car (bought used).
My husband has now become incredibly frugal. I know a lot of it stems from the fact that he cannot work, and even if he can someday, he will never get the sort of pay he used to. So he “does his bit” for us by clipping coupons, watching for sales, etc. This is not the life I want for us. We never go anywhere, not even out to dinner or to a movie. Every purchase we make has to be discussed in depth ahead of time. I miss being able to go to Macy’s and just buying something on the spur of the moment. I would like, just once in awhile, to have a glimpse of our old life back—just a dinner out or a splurge on something. But I think this would really hurt my husband. He feels so worthless sometimes and takes pride in his frugality. It is the way he contributes to our household. Do you think I should take a chance on telling him that every once in a while, I want our old life back, if just for a minute? Or should I just let this go? I love my husband dearly and don’t want to hurt him.
A: There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with missing your old life, but I don’t think your husband is the most appropriate person to share these feelings with. At the very least, he shouldn’t be their primary recipient. You are, it must be pointed out, hardly living in squalor; an apartment and a used car and bargain-shopping are certainly a far cry from your former standard of living, but you’re not exactly the Little Match Girl either. Share your periodic longing for impulse helicopter-shopping with a trusted friend or family member or counselor, rather than with your husband who has recently recovered from cancer. That said, your desire to go out to dinner is a reasonable, and I think achievable, one. Tell your husband that as proud as you are of your joint ability to respond to unexpected circumstances, you would love to go out to eat one night and celebrate. Enlist his help in saving for this splurge, since he’s such an expert budgeter, and choose a place that will feel special but won’t land you in debt. There’s a difference between sharing your feelings honestly with your husband (“I’m so proud of all your hard work and patience during the last few years, and I’m glad that things aren’t as bad as they were, but sometimes I can’t help but miss our old life”) and burdening him with them (“I’m miserable without six guest waterfalls and think about nothing else”).
Q. Interior and exterior ugliness: What do you say to someone who had cosmetic surgery and it looks terrible? I have a relative who just posted a picture of herself on social media after having undergone extensive facial surgery. It looks awful. I will have to see her over the holidays, and I know she’ll want to talk about it. She is a cruel narcissist who has always been insecure about her looks, so she constantly makes hateful comments about other people and takes great pleasure in hurting and manipulating people. This goes beyond garden-variety pettiness to sociopathic-level behavior. I don’t want to get into a conflict with her, but I also don’t want to tell her she looks great, because she doesn’t. Changing the subject won’t do because there’s only one subject with her, and that’s herself.
A: I think you should talk as little as possible with this relative and confine yourself to generic platitudes. You two aren’t close, there’s no pre-existing relationship founded on trust and honesty that you can draw upon in order to share difficult truths, and she’s not going to get any plastic surgery reversed just because you don’t like it. If you honestly think of her as a sociopath, the state of her chin (or eyelids, or cheekbones, or whatever) is the least of your problems with her. The important thing here is to minimize the possibility for conflict with someone you don’t know (or care for) very well, because I don’t think she’s going to respond well to honesty. “You seem so happy! I’m glad for you” should fit the bill, followed by a polite smile and a quick exit.
Q. The internet is for porn: I don’t like that my boyfriend watches porn. We live together, and on a couple of occasions he has left a few tabs open on the computer by accident. I never said anything about it until this one time recently after I had finished all the washing and drying and ironing and cooking. I took it personally and didn’t speak to him for a couple of days. Initially he said that there was nothing to be embarrassed about and that he would keep doing it. Then he admitted that it was a bit selfish of him and he would be more conscious of it. I guess this means he’s going to cover his tracks better. I don’t want to nag him and ruin the really great relationship that we have by focusing on this one thing, but my heart sinks super low every time he goes for a shower knowing that his phone is in his pocket. Is there anything I can do? Or is this just one of those things you have to accept in a relationship?
A: I think more troubling than the fact that your boyfriend watches porn is the fact that you gave him the silent treatment for multiple days rather than directly talking about your feelings. I realize that there are a lot of feelings connected to rejection and security when it comes to matters of sex and intimacy, but you’re an adult who lives with her partner and needs to be able to use her words when she’s upset. You mention “after I had finished all the washing and drying and ironing and cooking” as backstory in a way that suggests either he doesn’t do his fair share of housework or that you think performing the lion’s share of chores entitles you to dictate whether he looks at porn. I think it’s fairly reasonable for an adult to look at porn and that you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a heterosexual male who doesn’t; that doesn’t mean you can’t have feelings about it or request to set certain boundaries, but it does mean that this problem is likely to come up in any relationship, even if you were to exchange the guy. Find a better way to articulate your concerns about porn, about sex, about feelings, about the division of labor in your home. If you feel insecure, say so. If you have ethical concerns about certain types of pornography, state them. If you have questions for him, ask them. If you’re tired of doing all the cooking and the washing up, tell him that things are going to change. Just don’t give him the silent treatment and then try to ignore your sinking heart whenever he steps in the shower. That’s a disservice to the both of you.
Q. Freeloading friend: I have a good friend who has always been a bit on the stingy side when it comes to money (she’s obsessed with anything free and attends almost any event where she can get free food or drinks). It’s never really bothered or affected me. However, she recently went back to graduate school, and her freeloading has gone off the charts now that she has virtually no income. She has started to try to shift all of our get-togethers to my house so that she can (voraciously) eat whatever dinner my husband and I are making. If I ask her to bring a bottle of wine or something to contribute to dinner, she always forgets. She’s consumed entire bottles of our wine when she comes over. Not only that, but when we do split things (like takeout) and she pays, she has sent me Venmo requests for up to 50 percent more than what I should owe. I bring it up, and she backs down, but I know she’s trying to test what she can get. I’m at a loss for how to handle this! I feel completely taken advantage of by someone whom I used to trust. I did confront her with this issue once and got a very half-hearted apology, but the behavior persists. Is it time to cut her freeloading off and stop allowing her to come over?
A: If you resent every glass of wine she drinks when she’s at your house, then yes, you should stop inviting her over. Spend time with her in public, or at least in between meals, and ask for separate checks up front.
Q. Maybe a bridesmaid?: I’m in an odd predicament. In college I was friends with a couple who later divorced. He started dating someone, and they later got engaged. I was definitely friends with “Amy” but not what I would consider close. She asked me to be a bridesmaid, and very surprised, I said yes. I made more of an effort after that (doing things one-on-one instead of group settings, for example). Amy always said the wedding was years down the road. My family moved out of state, and we eventually fell out of contact. I was never sure if I should contact her to bow out of my bridesmaid duties or if I should wait to let her contact me. I always felt guilty for not staying in better touch, since I was supposed to be a bridesmaid. It’s been four years since I’ve talked to her, and I can’t help but notice there are no longer any pictures of her with her fiancé on her Facebook page. I feel like, since it’s been so long since we’ve talked, any contact I might make with her would come across as nosy. I guess I am being a little nosy, but I also legitimately want to know that she’s doing OK if they did split. Should I just leave this alone?
A: There’s nothing wrong with being nosy—I find myself feeling a bit nosy about this situation myself—but nosiness shouldn’t always dictate one’s actions. You are not under any obligation to renounce your bridesmaid duties; you were asked informally, and then the wedding never materialized, after which your friendship effectively dissolved. But if you genuinely want to get in touch, you can feel free to send her a message, that you realized it had been years since you last spoke, and you wanted to see how she was doing (presumably you have, or had, genuine feelings of friendship for this woman and are not merely pumping her for information). If she responds, and if she brings up her almost certainly defunct relationship with your friend, you’ll have both satisfied your curiosity and renewed an acquaintance. If she doesn’t bring him up, satisfy yourself with having a pleasant conversation with an old friend. Just don’t do so under the cover of discharging your “duties” as a long-ago hypothetical bridesmaid.
Q. How much truth?: My husband and I lived for some time in the midsize community that he grew up in. It is an easy town to run into people you know but might not keep up with in depth. We no longer live there but are often in town for my stepchild’s events, school activities, and sports. For more than four years now we have had no contact with his parents and some other family members, mostly related to his childhood abuse. This was not a choice my husband took lightly, but I support his decision and agree it is best for our family. The problem is we often run into people who ask about the status of his parents or other family when in town from well-meaning people who don’t know we are estranged. Questions like, “Oh, how’s your mom?” or statements like, “I saw your dad the other day!” It is always awkward and uncomfortable for everyone as we stumble to find something to say. What do we say in these situations? We just haven’t found a good response.
A: “Doing well, I think; how’s yours?” and “Oh, did you? How nice” are perfectly bland, noncommittal responses. It depends on how much you’re willing to engage in white lies. It is an uncomfortable situation, so I don’t think you’ll ever be able to completely remove the awkwardness, but there are plenty of ways to make it clear that you’re not interested in pursuing this particular subject. If the idea of going into detail about your estrangement at the grocery store seems unbearable, then I think sticking with not strictly true generalities and changing the subject is your best bet; if you don’t want to run the risk of ever getting caught in a lie, then my vote is for, “We actually aren’t in touch with Dan’s parents, but thanks for asking,” followed by your most generic smile.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it from me for this week! See you back here soon.
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