Daniel 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 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.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Welcome, everyone. Pull up a seat, and let us reason together.
Q. Am I my cousin’s keeper? My cousin is a sociopath. He recently dated a friend of mine, stole her identity, and then dumped her. Now all our friends are angry with me, because I should cut him off after what he did. Should I? It won’t teach him anything; he can’t learn that sort of lesson, and it might make him worse (it has in the past). Plus, it will upset my aunt, who already has enough to deal with regarding him. Not to mention the rest of the family who see his friendship (such as it is) with me and my brother as a way my cousin can be controlled—and therefore pressure us to stay in contact with him. (He is, or was at one point, diagnosed. My aunt has grown more deceptive over his psych history as time went on.)
A: You seem fairly convinced that cutting off your cousin is not an option, but I wonder if there are possibilities you have not yet considered in between cutting him off completely (which you have already determined is not worth doing) and saying nothing (which seems to be your current tactic). For what it’s worth, sociopathy is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, and I don’t know if it would be an especially helpful label for you to use when dealing with your cousin. If you consider your continued relationship with him as a means to an end, you have already conceded all control to him. You say that your friendship with him is one way your cousin can be “controlled” and that were you to withdraw your friendship he would get nonspecifically “worse,” but in the same letter you claim you are unable to teach him anything and that he is incapable of learning lessons. You’ve rather neatly created a situation where he has all of the power, and you have none; where you are required to continue a relationship with him so that he does not deteriorate, but you cannot criticize his behavior when he acts badly or hope to incite him to improve in any way. You have therefore cast yourself as an impotent witness, which I don’t think you have to be. You might, for example, tell your cousin that although you care for him and worry about how his behavior affects your aunt, you also hate the way he treated your friend. You might offer her your sympathy and support and ask if there is anything material you can do in order to help her rebuild. You might in future warn any friends of yours who considered getting involved with your cousin that he has a history of defrauding his romantic partners. You might consider cutting off contact not because you think it would result in behavior modification, but because someone who steals the identity of one of your friends has forfeited his claim on your goodwill. You might also consider reporting his crime. You have numerous options; do not cut yourself off from them prematurely.
Q. Naming a child after an addict: My fiancé and I dated for two years when I was 16 to 18, got back together when I was 22, and now we’ve been engaged for a little more than a year and will be getting married in April (I’m 25 now). Since I was 16 his family told me that we had to name our future son after my fiancé’s father. At first I thought it was cute even though the name is very Italian and I am very not. However, when we got back together I learned that not only had my fiancé’s father been a heroin addict most of my fiancé’s childhood, but that he was using again. He didn’t use for very long until he got caught and went to rehab, and as far as I know he hasn’t used since then (two-ish years). But knowing this about him, along with his tendencies to hold the fact that he’s giving us wedding money over our heads (a whole ‘nother letter for you … ), that he’s an old-fashioned sexist, and the fact that my own father is a severe alcoholic that I no longer have a relationship with, I don’t want to name a hypothetical future child after this man. I don’t necessarily think he’s a bad person, but he just doesn’t scream “namesake” to me. How do I broach this subject with my fiancé and his family?
A: Broach it with your fiancé first, I should think. If neither of you is interested in naming your (as-yet nonexistent) son after his grandfather, then you’ve just cut the burden of breaking the news to your in-laws in half. (Not to mention the fact that you have precedent on your side: Your fiancé was obviously not named after his own father, so it’s not as if you’ll be breaking a long-standing tradition.) If he’s lukewarm on the name himself but interested in going along to keep the peace, then you two will have a lively discussion on your hands. If your in-laws are already trying to dictate what you should name your children before you’ve even gotten married, much less pregnant, I think you’re going to have plenty of exciting, challenging opportunities to set firm boundaries with them in your future.
Q. Friend faux pas: I recently got into an argument with a friend. We’ve never had a conflict before, and this was about something minor. Immediately after the fight, she left for a two-week vacation. I figured we’d clear things up after she got back. A day after she left, I got reached out to by a recruiter for a job that just so happens to be one that she had been interviewing for. I didn’t want to message her since our fight was unresolved, and I preferred to tell her face to face, but she’s now mad that I didn’t tell her immediately. Did I commit a friend sin?
A: Let’s say that, while perhaps not guilty of a grievous sin, you did not optimize an already poorly timed situation. Her anger is understandable, but it does not necessarily follow that you did something wrong. Tell her that you weren’t sure what the right thing to do was in the moment, that you wanted more than anything to speak with her face to face (presumably so you could minimize the risk of misunderstandings like the one you’re currently in), and that you were not trying to keep the truth from her in waiting for her return before you broached the subject. If she’s able to accept your apology, and the two of you can forgive each other for that minor fight, then you stand a good chance of being able to weather the difficult position of being in the running for the same job.
Q. Stay in LDR or leave: I am a young girl in love with her college sweetheart. I absolutely adore him. He is kind, funny, absolutely handsome, great in bed. Most of all he has been there for me when I was in an extremely depressed state and was having suicidal thoughts. He has also been a major influence on my personality because I was with him through the shaping years of my life. After years of feeling ridiculously inferior, I am finally confident and love myself, largely owing to his stable and supportive presence in my life. Here comes the but: We have been in a long-distance relationship for five out of the six years of our relationship. Considering our career choices, we are easily looking at another five to six years of a long-distance relationship. I would be lying if I said it’s hardly a problem. On some days I think if all of this pain is worth it. I would be spending most of my youth with a partner who is only virtually available. And I have such strong physical needs sometimes I just think of breaking up. But this man is everything I need, would make a great father to my children. He has been one of the most stable emotional relationships in my life, somebody I could totally depend on. But on certain days not being able to be physically near just gets unbearable. What do I do? Should I wait or should I look elsewhere? I am really confused: My mind wants him, but my body has its needs too.
A: You could certainly consider ending the relationship—I would consider it, in your position, if I were facing a cumulative decade of dating long-distance. You could also talk to your boyfriend about the possibility of maintaining an open relationship while you two live apart. The two of you seem to be enormously compatible and supportive of each other, and you seem to be having all of your emotional needs met. You’re merely experiencing an understandable need for physical affection that he can’t meet while he’s so far away. If you two really see a future together but also won’t be able to live near each other for another five years, I think you owe it to yourselves to at least discuss the possibility of opening up your relationship. You’d have to set ground rules, and establish clear communication, and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, but it might be the most logical solution to your problem.
Q. Nanny share battle: My best friend’s child care arrangements fell through a few months ago. We live in an area where it can be very hard to get child care, even if you can afford to pay a lot. My oldest child has now entered school and is only with our nanny for two hours before I get home. My friend has been dropping off her daughter at my house, and we have been doing a nanny-share until she finds other arrangements. My friend pays a small premium to my nanny, but she does not defray any costs my husband or I are paying for our live-in help. Our nanny has been instructed to only speak her native Spanish language to our children. My first language was Spanish, and it is very important to me that my children be fluent in the language. My friend, despite her best efforts, has not found suitable arrangements for her daughter yet after three months. She also just found out that her daughter is slightly behind where she should be verbally. She thinks this might be because she is being spoken to in a foreign language during the day and has asked if we could allow our nanny to speak English until she has found alternate arrangements. I said no, and she is really angry. Part of it seems pointless anyway because my husband says our nanny’s English is poor to begin with (I always speak to her in Spanish so I don’t know). I understand my friend is struggling, but I am not sure I want to compromise. I pay my nanny well above minimum wage in addition to providing free accommodation and meals. I want the service I am paying for and that is the language immersion for my children. I also don’t want to burden my nanny with a language that is unfamiliar to her—she does such a great job helping our family and raising my children. My friend says I am being heartless to her child’s needs. Am I?
A: I don’t think you are being heartless, and I don’t think there are any children who are suffering or not getting their needs met in this arrangement. Many young children are “slightly behind” in their verbal development; it’s no reason to panic, and it’s certainly not the result of hearing Spanish a few hours a day. This little girl presumably hears English at home and from most of the other people in her life. I think your friend is experiencing a great deal of stress and ambiguity due to her inability to secure child care and is overreacting to a very slight developmental bump in the road. There’s very little she feels like she can control at present, so she wants to dictate what language your nanny speaks, which is unreasonable. If it were just a matter of “getting the service [you are] paying for,” however, I might advise you to compromise in the short-term; however, since this nanny is fluent in Spanish, the language she was hired to speak to your children, and struggles with English, I think it would be unfair of you to suddenly change the terms of her employment. Your friend’s daughter is not in any danger. Hearing Spanish on a daily basis is not causing her developmental delay, and you were clear about the nature of your child care arrangements when you offered to share them with your friend three months ago; you should not ask your nanny to start speaking English now.
Q. Why can’t he make up his mind?: I’ve been with my boyfriend for five and a half years. Lately, if I ask him what he’d like to do or eat or what his plans are, he will either get really agitated and say, “I don’t know” or not answer me at all. We live in different cities—50 miles apart—so I like to have advanced notice if he plans on coming to my place for the weekend. If I ask him, “Do you plan on coming up this month so that I can make arrangements?” he will not answer me. I end up making plans for myself and then he’ll contact me on a Thursday and say, “What are our plans this weekend?” It’s starting to really drive me crazy! When I was growing up with a mentally ill sibling who was difficult about plans, my father would tell me that you should just state what you are doing and leave it at that. I wondering if I should take this stance with my boyfriend?
A: That sounds like an effective strategy for anyone who’s indecisive, regardless of whether he or she has a mental illness. If your boyfriend asking you what your plans are on a regular basis, it sounds like he still wants to see you and would prefer not to make the plans himself. Go ahead and initiate plans and ask if he’s comfortable with them, rather than repeatedly demanding he initiate them for you both.
Q. Re: Naming a child after an addict: In many Italian families, the tradition is to name the eldest boy after the grandfather. Thus, each name skips a generation. Your advice still stands, but tradition wasn’t necessarily broken.
A: That’s helpful information! It doesn’t mean that they have to name any children after him, but it’s useful context for why the in-laws are being so insistent.
Q. Trusting my husband the doctor: My husband and I began dating when he was still in med school. After a grueling residency we got married, and he’s been practicing as an ER doctor for the past few years. He gets glowing reviews from patients and administrators alike, and I truly believe him to be a dedicated, caring, and educated physician. Here’s the thing: I have zero trust in him when it comes to my own health. I trust that what he’s saying is true and that he knows what he’s talking about, but I always insist on seeing my doctor in her office. For example, he’ll tell me what the doctor is most likely to say and do in my appointment and will tell me I don’t have to waste my time going into the office. I still go, he’s always right, and I’ll have wasted time and a copay. My husband is never offended when I insist on seeking medical advice from someone else, but I can tell it annoys him, and he always tells me when something is outside his expertise. My question is: Am I being dumb and unreasonable when I buck his advice and insist on hearing the same information from an outside party? Part of me doesn’t believe he’s really a doctor because I’ve known him in such a different capacity for so long.
A: There is no reason that your husband should also be your doctor; it’s perfectly reasonable that you don’t want the same person who never closes the cabinet doors in the kitchen all the way to also be the person who offers you medical advice. Go see your own doctor with a clear conscience.