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.
Mallory Ortberg: Hello, everyone. Let’s chat.
Q. Hate that I am happy: I just got out of the wreckage of a five-year marriage. My husband blatantly carried on an affair for two years with a young woman I considered my protégé. I counseled her on her career, recommended her special projects, and invited her into my home. I came home unexpectedly early one day and found them together in bed. Apparently everyone knew—neighbors, colleagues, mutual friends. I was so humiliated, I fled town, transferred to out of state, and only communicated to my ex via my lawyer. A few friends kept me informed—she was pregnant, they were engaged, and just waiting for the ink to dry so they could have a wedding.
Then my ex drove drunk and ended up crashing into a semi. She lost the baby, and my ex-husband lost his right leg. After I heard the news, I cried tears of joy. I was so fiercely happy that it scared me. I used to be a kind person, a good person—now I don’t know. I haven’t told anyone; it is a sick, sad secret I don’t want to give up. I try to move forward and concentrate on my new house and new job, but then I get an impulse to look on Facebook and gloat to myself or call my friends and fish for more details on their misery. What is wrong with me?
A: The human condition is what is wrong with you, and you are not alone. I don’t think this is an impulse that should dictate your behavior, but I don’t think it’s a sign that you are irredeemably broken or incapable of empathy. Your ex-husband and ex-protégé hurt you badly, and now they are hurting badly; the wounded-animal part of your brain that rejoices in their suffering is not your best and highest self, but it’s an instinct I think most readers of this column can identify with. (The writer of this column also identifies.)
This is part of why I myself am often anxious about experiencing anger—there is a part of me that does not simply want to see justice done or boundaries honored. There is a part of me that wants to punish anyone I perceive to have wronged me without a thought for proportion. It is so easy to take delight in anger, to want to see someone suffer not just in the same amount he or she brought suffering to us, but forever and in a way that does not abate when we see his or her suffering come to pass. This is not an impulse that we should encourage in ourselves. I think therapy would be extremely useful to you at this juncture. It would help you deal with these troubling emotions, as well as acknowledge the very real hurt you yourself experienced quite recently. You will not, I think, ever find yourself rid of a desire to inflict pain on the people who have hurt you, but you will find a healthy way to acknowledge and set it aside and not to encourage yourself to dwell on the details of their misery.
Q. Etiquette for expats: I am a former New Yorker living in Mexico, and I went to my local bar to watch the election proceedings. I am of African American descent. When I arrived, the bar was filled with 99 percent white expats (and me) as customers eating and drinking, and the entire wait staff was Mexican. Each time Trump won a state there were people who high-fived and were vocal in their joy. Trump is not someone Mexicans don’t know about, and they are quite aware of the bullshit he’s said about Mexico and Mexicans. While I am aware that election night is sort of like the Super Bowl of politics, I was absolutely devastated, floored, mortified, and horrified that in front of Mexicans one would cheer a president who has openly said despicable things about Mexico and Mexicans. When it was obvious who won, the bar emptied, and I went to sit at the bar itself and asked one of the bartenders how she felt about that night. I thought she was going to cry. We had a good conversation, but my question is: What should one have done in this situation? Every idea I’ve come up with involves my getting a punch in the face. Please include what a bystander might do too. Aside from not voting for or admitting you voted for Trump what would have been the proper thing to do? It never occurred to me that anyone living here was voting for Trump. Why move to Mexico if you detest Mexicans? Thank you and no, this is not a joke.
A: What a remarkable failure in empathy you were witness to—for people to travel to Mexico, then loudly rejoice at the victory of a political movement that makes daily life less safe for Mexican Americans (not to mention anyone perceived to be Mexican American). I think in situations like the one you described, there are two important balances to strike. One is your personal safety, particularly your safety as a black person in the midst of a deeply racist political moment. I do not want you to get punched in the face, and I do not think you are obligated to put yourself in a situation where you have reason to fear violence; in such instances, your primary obligation is to yourself and your own well-being. As for your more general question—what should any given bystander do in such situations—whenever possible, and when doing so does not run the risk of incurring violence, I think it is important to challenge racism when one is faced with it, particularly if one is white. What you did that night—reading the moment, experiencing grief, keeping your own safety in mind given that you were a black person faced with a gleeful white mob, checking in with another vulnerable person afterward and offering a compassionate ear—was exactly right for your situation.
Q. Colleagues post-election?: When you encounter people making hateful statements about large groups of people, such as other ethnicities, do you engage or disengage? If it’s online? If it’s in person? I won’t hesitate to stand up for someone being bullied on the subway, but I wonder if I should bother in other formats or if it’s just wasted air.
A: Racism merits engagement. Context is key—it may not be the best use of your time to engage a stranger online who is clearly uninterested in having a genuine conversation about their own racism, you may have reasons to fear for your own safety, etc.—but hell yes, racism (in others, in ourselves, in national and local institutions, in history, in policy, in medicine, in sex and romance, in our families) merits engagement. Racism merits disavowal. Racism merits rejection. Racism does not deserve silence, if one is situated to speak. Racism asks for tacit approval, for uneasy silence, for half-hearted chuckles, for the challenge to go unmet. It does not deserve any of those things.
Q. Stuck in a state of confusion: My husband is constantly making obscene comments to me and our children. He tells other people that our boys are not his, that they are from my first marriage, and that he only had them so that they would do all of the things he doesn’t want to do. I cannot begin to tell you how badly this hurts both me and my children, because they are his biological children and he knows that. He is constantly yelling at them, cursing at them, and threatening them, and if I intervene, he starts yelling at me too! I’ve suggested marriage counseling, and he laughed and told me to go by myself. So I have been, for six months. My therapist thinks that I should divorce him, but I am not in a financial position to leave. I have no family that I can stay with, and we just moved to a new state, and I don’t know anyone around here that would be able to accommodate three extra people. Once I graduate from school I will be able to support all of us, but I don’t know if I should wait to graduate or drop out of college with a year left to find a full-time job. Help!
A: That you should leave your husband is without question. If he is going so far as to threaten your children, you absolutely should divorce him and sue for sole custody. The less your sons remember of him, the better off they will be; however, I want you to be prepared and in the strongest emotional and financial situation possible when you go. Find your local chapter of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence—it can help you with a job search and finding an affordable place to live. Consult the National Domestic Violence Pro Bono Directory to find low-cost or free legal advice. If you live in a community property state, you are entitled to half of the assets acquired during your marriage. The Allstate Foundation offers a free “financial empowerment” service to people leaving abusive relationships; you may also find this helpful. If you have not started one already, open a bank account in your own name and put away whatever you can for your getting-the-hell-out-of-Dodge fund. If you have friends back in your home state you can trust, consider asking for financial support as you prepare to leave your marriage. Do not drop out of college until you have found work, but make leaving your marriage your highest priority. Your campus likely has a career center that you can utilize for help getting a full-time job; ask for help. You and your children deserve it.
Q. Trip-advise me: I’m about to go on a trip with a friend who I’m realizing over the course of planning is highly incompatible with me. We don’t share the same packing philosophy, activities of interest, alcohol tolerance, walking speed, culinary interests. What to do?
A: Build some alone time into your itinerary. Just because you’re traveling together doesn’t mean you have to remain a unit every waking moment. Tell your friend that although you are of course looking forward to spending time with her (I assume you still like this person, or at least find her tolerable), you also want to make sure you both have a fair amount of daily freedom to visit the places that interest you and go at your own pace. This would hold true even for a traveling companion whose tastes coincided perfectly with yours on every front. Make sure you have at least one meal a day without each other, and leave plenty of afternoons dedicated to solo exploration.
Also, don’t worry about her packing philosophy; let her pack however she wants to.
Q. Day care disaster: I have a quid pro quo with my neighbors. My husband travels most months out of the year while I stay at home with our kids; I pick up my neighbors’ two girls along with my daughter and watch them until their parents get home. In return, my neighbors help me with my yard and home repairs. My problem is that two weeks ago my sister in-law needed some emergency day care for her two boys after her provider quit. The boys go to a different school clear across town, which means I am stuck in traffic at least an hour and a half everyday with five children under 9 and my toddler.
Before, I would walk to the elementary school to pick up the girls. I am doing this new routine as a favor to my sister-in-law, and now I think she is dragging her feet finding new child care. She has talked about how “nice it is for the kids to see each other” and “the high cost of day care.” I have shut this down every time. This is temporary, out of my way, and too much for me to deal with on a daily basis. Nothing has happened on getting my nephews into a new day care. My sister-in-law hems and haws and I am struggling to control my temper. I don’t want to damage my relationship with her with the holidays coming up, and my husband will not be home until the start of December. What should I do? Give her a deadline? Not pick up the boys if she can’t find day care? Get my husband and mother in-law involved? I need some help here.
A: It’s perfectly reasonable to give her a deadline. Day care is expensive, and I’m at least partly sympathetic to her predicament, but that’s no reason for her to try to turn your “emergency” assistance into a long-term child care plan. Pick a date, tell her that’s the last day you’ll be available to pick up the boys, and then stop picking up the boys after said date. If “not becoming a free, full-time nanny on zero notice” damages your relationship with her, I’m afraid that anything short of being a total doormat would have damaged your relationship.
Q. Bi boyfriend: My boyfriend and I have been together for a year (both in our mid-20s). I love him completely and can’t imagine my life without him. Last weekend, after a long night of drinking, he told me that he’s bisexual. I was pretty surprised and hurt that he never mentioned it in the year we’ve been together. He said that he always assumed one of our mutual friends had told me and I just didn’t care. He’s hurt that I “of all people” would be upset about it. But I’m not upset he’s bi—he’s exactly the same person he always was, and I love him regardless! It just was unfair to wait so long to tell me, and I want him to acknowledge that and apologize. We haven’t spoken about it again, and I know we need to. Some context: All his college friends know, although I’ve only met a few of them as he went to college out of state. His family doesn’t know, and he’s only told one of his close friends here. So it’s not a secret, but certainly not something I could have deduced on my own. He kept saying he only wants to be with me, which I’ve never doubted and also not the issue here. How do I get him to understand that the timing of this revelation is what I’m upset about? Or am I being unreasonable?
A: I understand the desire underneath your frustration: You love your boyfriend, you want to know him and be known by him in turn, you want him to be able to share anything with you, you want to be able to share anything with him, and you want him to feel safe telling you things he doesn’t tell everyone else. That’s all completely understandable. Getting upset with him for not coming out to you sooner is, however, not a response that will make him likely to share deep emotional and relational truths with you in the future. Whether or not he genuinely believed you’d “already heard” about his bisexuality or merely hoped, he was clearly anxious about your response. I don’t think you should tell him it’s “unfair” to hold off on coming out, especially when there are so many negative bisexual stereotypes your boyfriend has had to contend with. If you haven’t already, tell him that you love him, that you’re glad he was able to come out to you, and that you want him to feel comfortable talking about himself with you. Ask him questions if he seems comfortable with it. Make it clear that you want to know him and the things that matter to him, that you want to be supportive and understanding, that you know his bisexuality does not in any way call your present relationship into question, and that he doesn’t need to worry about justifying his commitment or attraction to you.