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: The appointed time, the appointed place. Let’s chat.
Q. My family is freaking out because I made my brother get his own Netflix: When my brother went to college across the country, I added him onto my Netflix and gave him all the info. At the time it was still cheap and allowed four people to use it at time. I also sent him money, gift cards, bought him nice meals and pizza remotely, and listened to him complain about how much he hated the beautiful, tropical destination vacation spot his college was located in. Our parents supported him fully; rent, phone, car, insurance, grocery money, etc. This was not something offered to me, as I am the “black sheep” of the family, but I digress. After three years away, my brother came home and immediately landed his dream job. He is back home living at my parents’ and has no bills other than his still-deferred student loans. He brags about having cash on Facebook and suddenly can afford a loan for a brand-new truck and a motorcycle. When he asked me for the Netflix info again I explained they raised the price and only allowed two screens at a time. I have a husband and a child. We can’t afford cable. We have bills and rent to pay for, and I have a lot of medical bills. No one has ever given me any financial assistance. Rather than paying for additional screens for him, I told my brother he was a big boy now and could afford his own Netflix or just use the free internet and cable at my parents’. He now won’t speak to me and my parents have flipped out on me because I don’t understand “his” struggles. I think they’re babying him but everyone is so angry I keep wondering if I’m actually wrong. Thoughts?
A: Your brother is being very silly. Your parents are being, if possible, even sillier. There is nothing you can do to help them through their unnecessary tantrums. You are not harming your adult brother in any way by refusing to provide him with a free video-streaming service. His well-being is in no way impaired by no longer having access to your Recently Watched list; I suspect that if this is the reason he is willing to cut off all contact with you, you are better off not hearing from him. The amount of anger your (perfectly reasonable!) boundary has invoked does not make you wrong; your family members are behaving irrationally, and there is nothing you can do beyond calmly and firmly restating your boundary: “I’m not going to keep providing Cranthony with free Netflix, but if you’d ever like to discuss something else, I’d be more than happy to chat about [your sciatica/what I’m reading/the cat’s gout].” It may be true that you don’t understand your brother’s struggles, but I can assure you that “not having access to your Netflix” is not one of them.
Q. Reconnecting with a wronged friend: Years ago, I did the worst thing I have ever done—I had a pretty intense affair with my friend’s partner. Miraculously, my friend never found out, but I had to pretty much break off that friendship when I ended the affair. I regret everything about this part of my life, in particular the loss of that friendship. Now, both my (former) friend and I have moved on in new relationships. Recently, I got an invitation from a mutual friend to a small dinner with a guest list including my old friend, me, and both of our current partners. The part of me that still misses my friend would love a chance to reconnect under new circumstances, but the part of me that’s still guilty and regretful thinks that trying to reconnect would be a duplicitous mistake. Should I RSVP yes and hope to turn over a new leaf together, or should I sit this one out?
A: I can’t imagine resuming any sort of meaningful relationship with that friend while being unable to disclose why you pulled away from them years ago. If you’re not prepared to make that disclosure, I think any friendship you were to rekindle with them would be precarious, uncomfortable, and dishonest, and I’d advise you either to sit this dinner out, or, if you do attend, to keep your former friend at a polite distance.
Q. Am I obligated to go?: My former partner and I were together for just over seven years and after a rocky relationship we decided to split in January 2015, largely due to the fact that his grandparents, who he is extremely close to, refuse to accept that he identifies as gay. My ex’s sister, who I was actually great friends with in high school, is getting married Thanksgiving weekend. I am an event planner and helped plan the ceremony quite extensively prior to the breakup. I am currently seeing someone new and she has generously still extended an invitation for my current partner and I both to attend the wedding. I am very uncomfortable attending a wedding full of people and memories from my past, both alone and/or with my current partner, but the last thing that I want to do is come off as offensive or rude by not attending. Am I obligated to attend or can I simply send well wishes and a gift?
A: You are not obligated to attend anyone’s wedding, especially a wedding that would bring up painful memories of a fairly recent breakup, and this particular wedding sounds like it would be a minefield for you. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing the complicated details of your feelings with the bride-to-be, simply send your nonspecific regrets. But since you’re fairly close, you might consider personalizing your regrets; tell her that you’re very happy for her but aren’t ready to see your ex-partner under such heightened circumstances and would love to take her out to celebrate after she gets back from her honeymoon.
Q. Tried and truant: The nanny who babysits for our two young children herself has a middle school–aged daughter, “Jane.” She frequently brings Jane along with her. My kids love “Jane” and she is great with them, so it doesn’t present any direct problem for me. My concern is that this happens four or five school days a month, which means “Jane” is missing a lot of school. I worry that it could harm her academic progress. I know our nanny is a loving parent, but I fear she may be overlooking the consequences of letting her daughter miss so much school. Is it my place to bring up my concerns? If so, how should I do it?
A: It’s fine to ask your nanny questions, as long as you make it clear that you’re not making her continued employment conditional based upon her answers. She may have an arrangement with Jane’s school, she may homeschool her, she may have no alternative after-school child care options and this is the best arrangement she can come up with that allows her to work and provide for her family. There’s a wide variety of possible explanations, so don’t put her on the spot. Say, “I noticed that Jane is often with you on school days, and while we love having her with the kids, I wondered if her school is understanding of your arrangement. How does that work?” If her answer troubles you, then you might consider asking if there’s something you can do to help make things easier for Jane; if her answer puts your fears to rest, you can move on.
Q. Happy pregnancy?: I’m a single woman in her very early 40s. I’ve been single most of my life, have studied way too long, and I’m now “enjoying” the perks of precarity in academic life. Two years ago, after months of trying, I was lucky enough to give birth to a beautiful son. I have never been happier in my life. Being a solo parent is certainly not always easy, but I knew what I was getting myself into, and was prepared. I’ve been lucky, though, that my mom, who lives just minutes away, has been there to help me when I needed it. I’m now 42 and decided to have a second one. My sister-in-law, widow of my only brother, didn’t react well to my intention, telling me that I would “kill my mom” if I had another. We haven’t spoken much since, we meet at family events and our relationship is very superficial. I’m now ecstatic as I’m finally pregnant on the sixth try. I have told my parents but haven’t told her because I’m way too emotional to deal with her disapproval. What should I do? Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of my brother’s death, so I know we’ll meet. Do I send her a text to prepare her? Do I wait until that dinner to tell her? Do I just wait until later on, when I’m really showing? I’m at a loss as to what I can do. I love her, but her comment really hurt me and was unfair. I feel that my reproductive choices have nothing to do with my mom, but for the record, my mom is thrilled and was with me during the whole process.
A: Barring the extremely unlikely chance that your mother has been confiding in your sister-in-law that she is in fact terrified at the prospect of your having a second child, it sounds like your sister-in-law is speculating wildly about what will, in fact, kill your mother. If you think preparing her ahead of time would make seeing one another in person easier for you, then you should give her a call (or, if you absolutely must, a text) to let her know that you’re expecting again, and that you’re happy and healthy. If she tries to make you feel guilty about your pregnancy, you should feel perfectly within your rights to politely withdraw until she can get a hold of herself. Also: Congratulations!
Q. Wedding drama: My sister is two years younger than me and boy-crazy, emphasis on the crazy. Since she was 14, I have seen her careen from one romantic disaster to another. At 15 she stole our parents’ car and drove over 300 miles to see her summer crush after he stopped taking her calls. At 20, she proposed to a guy she’d known for a month. This would not be a problem for me, except my sister likes to date my friends. Either she thinks she can dictate my friends’ behavior or she will make a scene if things don’t work out (and they don’t). Most of my friends now understand not to get involved with her. My fiancé’s, not so much. My sister hooked up with one of the groomsmen at my engagement party, it ended badly, and now she refuses to be in the wedding party if he is there. Part of me wants to call her bluff but that would upset my mother, grandmother, and the rest of my family. Trying to have a wedding when one of my bridesmaids actively hates one of the groomsmen is not going to happen either. I am angry that this is what I am dealing with instead of caterers or getting my dress. What can I do?
A: Oh wow, this is some good old-fashioned romantic-comedy-level nonsense. I’m rarely inclined to advise letter writers to negotiate with nonsense, and unless your fiancé’s friend did something truly unforgivable to your sister, her request that you write a groomsman out of the ceremony just because their relationship didn’t last forever is not worth negotiating. I don’t encourage you to escalate, either: “Fine, stay at home; I didn’t want you to come anyways, and by the way, I resent the fact that you sleep with all my friends” might feel satisfying in the moment but would probably come back to haunt you in the form of intensified hostilities. Stick to the high-ish road: “I’d love to have you at the wedding, and I hope you’ll attend, but we are not going to disinvite one of the groomsmen just because things didn’t work out between the two of you romantically. If you decide you won’t be able to behave around him, I’m sorry to hear that.” Let her rage; perhaps she will rage herself out and show up, exhausted but reasonably well-behaved, on the big day.
Q. Do I tell my husband I’m seeing a therapist?: About two years ago, I contracted a life-threatening illness. As a result, I’ve had some lingering issues that have required multiple surgeries and a lot of rehabilitation. The stress of continuous pain, a lack of sleep, and now some work problems has me emotionally tapped out. I tried to explain to my husband how I felt a few weeks ago, and his response was less than supportive in that he doesn’t seem to know how to respond. He’s been great with the physical support I need, but not the emotional. I’ve just started telling him that I’m fine to avoid further disappointment. It was suggested to me that it might help to reach out to a therapist to have more in-depth discussions about handling the stressors. I’ve scheduled an appointment, but I don’t want to tell my husband because I don’t want to make him feel inadequate. At the same time, I am not getting the emotional support I need from him. Should I tell?
A: I don’t think you should worry overmuch about making your husband feel inadequate, since there is nothing wrong or even unusual with seeing a therapist, and many people with emotionally supportive partners go to therapy too. You can tell your husband that you’re going to therapy without it being some sort of referendum on his emotional intelligence, although I hope he’s able to improve his emotional responses in the future. (A good way to respond when your partner tells you they are emotionally tapped out after a long illness, for readers of the column who might be in similar situations in the future, is to say something like, “I’m so sorry. I love you. Thank you for telling me what you’re going through. What can I do to help?”)
Q. Re: Happy pregnancy?: Actually—her mother could be feeling overworked. My sister-in-law had her fourth child and assumes that her mom will provide day care. This was never discussed. Of course, her mother is free to say no to anything, but there can be a feeling of entitlement … perhaps that’s what the OP’s SIL means …
A: It’s certainly possible, but the LW seems pretty aware that her mother is there to help when possible, not volunteering to be a permanent co-parent—she says her mother is “thrilled” and was part of the process of getting pregnant, and although she could be misreading her mother, that’s not the impression I got from her letter. That said, it’s certainly worth checking in with her mother and possibly even the sister-in-law; if the LW’s mother is feeling overwhelmed but unable to say so to her own daughter (and is venting her fears and concerns to her son’s widow), then there’s a serious problem with this arrangement.
Q. Awful FOAF: How do I, as an adult, navigate around seeing a friend-of-a-friend who makes me profoundly uncomfortable? Last year at a mutual friend’s bachelorette party, a married woman I had never met before the trip engaged in behavior I found abhorrent (it involved drunken infidelity in front of a pool full of strangers). We were all asked to act like nothing had happened so that she wouldn’t feel bad. I managed to avoid her at our friend’s wedding (her marriage is none of my business but I am a terrible liar and couldn’t imagine making eye contact with her husband knowing what had happened) and assumed I’d never see her again. Since then, we’ve been on the same get-together guest lists a few times and the very idea of seeing her and her husband stresses me out. I’m in my 30s, so I don’t want to be a person who says “I’m not going if she’s going,” and I understand that it’s extremely unreasonable to ask my friend to choose between inviting only one of us. How do I get through social events with this woman? What do I say if she notices that I actively avoid her at parties and calls me out on it?
A: You should absolutely avoid her at parties. Don’t, you know, fling yourself down a laundry chute if she happens to brush past you, but give her a wide berth when you see her and feel free to (politely) leave a conversation in order to search out more congenial companions. If she is rude enough to ask why you’re not going out of your way to cultivate a friendship with her, be honest: “I’m not comfortable spending time with you because the last time we went out socially, you got drunk and cheated on your partner, and it troubles me to have to know that about you.” That’s, you know, a pretty good reason not to hang out at parties together.