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.)
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Q. Foot fetish: I am pretty open-minded when it comes to sex and willing to give most things a go. My boyfriend of six months has a serious foot fetish and was over the moon when I told him I was game. I actually really like the foot rubs and my boyfriend’s treating me to pedicures, but the stilettos are killing me. I have a knee injury that makes anything other than flats send shooting pain up my spine after about 15 minutes. I am fine wearing high heels in the bedroom but my boyfriend keeps pushing at me to wear heels during all the various holiday events we have to go to. It hurts and kills my libido. My boyfriend has given me very expensive insoles and other gifts but it makes me feel worse. We actually fought over my wearing a pair of black ballet flats to his office party. We get along well on everything but this and I feel like an idiot for considering this issue above all a deal-breaker. Am I crazy? Not being a good, open-minded girlfriend?
A: Take off the stilettos and the boyfriend while you’re at it, my God. If you think you are a bad girlfriend for being unwilling to exacerbate your knee injury in order to keep your boyfriend’s arousal constant 24/7, then your standard for what constitutes a “good girlfriend” is impossibly, and unhealthily, high. There’s reasonable accommodation of a fetish—like wearing high heels during sex—but what your boyfriend is pressuring you to do is painful and seriously over-the-top. Ask yourself if you would ever expect him to do something repeatedly, for hours, that both “hurts and kills [his] libido” just because it turned you on. I’m guessing the answer is no. The ballet flats aren’t the deal-breaker; the deal-breaker is that your boyfriend seems perfectly content to put you through hours of pain and discomfort on a regular basis to satisfy a fetish you’ve already gone out of your way to accommodate. The deal-breaker is that he’s being inconsiderate and selfish, not that he’s into feet.
Q. Holiday hell: My Thanksgiving was miserable—we had 15 adults, two college students (myself included), eight kids, and six dogs under one roof. The kids were a handful, but it was the adults who made the entire holiday miserable. (Everyone was there for a full week.) My parents and grandmother could not keep their political views to themselves, and there was a massive argument over Thanksgiving dinner; my older sister and her husband wouldn’t speak to each other for the entire week and referred to their kids as “YOUR son” and “YOUR daughter” even when the poor kids were right in front of them; three of the kids were terrified of the dogs (screaming and crying and completely flipping out if one of the dogs so much as sniffed them); we had temper tantrums (adult and child), hysterics, yelling, arguments, storming off, and one minor car accident. No one was happy by the end, and yet we’re planning to do it all again for Christmas and New Year’s—except it’ll be TWO weeks, this time. My family says it’s because it’s a “tradition.” I’m really tempted to tell them that they’re welcome to let miserable holidays be their tradition, but I’ll be spending Christmas with my boyfriend and his family. I’ve been invited, and I’m seriously tempted, but am I a bad daughter/sister/granddaughter/niece/aunt/cousin if I skip out on my family’s mess?
A: Skip it. Skip it. Skip it with a right and a glad goodwill. This isn’t tradition, it’s a millstone. Two weeks of forced cheer for 31 miserable beings who can’t speak a word of peace to one another is no way to celebrate anything. Say you won’t be able to make it, have a fabulous time with your boyfriend and his family, and feel free to start making alternate arrangements for next year, too.
Q. Facebook pettiness: Last year my husband had an affair with a female co-worker. I obviously found out. I moved out for two weeks. We reconciled with some conditions. Since he couldn’t leave his job or force her to leave, I wanted him to stop any contact with her outside of work. Texting, emailing, casual conversation are completely off-limits. And I’d just have to trust he’d do it. I was totally humiliated. I didn’t do anything wrong but I was the one who was punished. Fast forward a year. This woman has “collected” mutual friends of my husband’s Facebook friends (who are also mine through him). And not just Facebook, but actual friends! So even after I’ve blocked this problem in my life she then pops up in my friends’ Facebook pictures and comments. I’m honestly still reeling. Those mutual friends are no longer my friends. (I refuse to socialize with them.) My husband can do what he wants. But now I’m “in trouble” for no longer going to events and not being FB friends with the “mutual friends.” As an adult I can’t really say you’re either my friend or her friend, not both. (I think I’d then stick my tongue out at them to drive home the point.) But it does come down to that. Everyone knew, and no one clued me in. They aren’t my friends and I don’t want to create a façade on FB or at BBQs they are at. What’s a wronged girl to do?
A: It’s true that you can’t offer your friends an ultimatum over their relationship with this woman, but it’s entirely fair for you to say that it’s painful for you to be in places where she might turn up, and that it’s painful for you to be reminded (either online or off-) about the person your husband had an affair with. I’m not sure who you are “in trouble” with—is it your husband? The friends you’ve stopped spending time with? Third parties who might not know the details of your situation?—but it’s clear from your letter that you’re still incredibly angry with a lot of the people in your life, and I hope you are seeing a therapist to help you figure out how to process that anger productively. If Facebook is causing you distress, consider spending less time on Facebook. If you need to tell some of your friends who only became close with this woman after her affair with your husband came to light that their behavior hurt and humiliated you, I think you have the right to do so. If you need to reconsider whether or not you trust your partner and your friends, do it. I don’t think “avoiding getting in trouble” should be your primary goal. Your primary goal should be expressing your anger without lashing out, setting reasonable (not punitive) boundaries, and taking care of yourself.
Q. Fraught sisterhood: I recently ran into an old friend I ceased contact with when I found out my then-partner had once cheated on me with her. I was young, there was a huge age difference, and he was a classic gaslighter. She was even younger—and he put all the blame on her. Now I know he probably took advantage of her in the same way he did me. Since our awkward run-in as adults recently, I’ve considered reaching out—mostly to acknowledge what happened and offer to set the facts to rights, if she wants. My goal would be to know that she doesn’t think of me badly and vice versa, but is it best to let sleeping dogs lie?
A: I think you should reach out! Don’t open with “I think my ex might have mistreated you too—want to talk about it?” Just say, “It was so good to see you, and it made me realize how much I’ve missed our friendship. Would you ever want to get coffee?” If she seems responsive, then you can bring up how much you regret the way you ended your friendship, and that you want to offer your belated support now that you’re able to see how badly your ex-boyfriend behaved. If she doesn’t, you shouldn’t force anything on her—but who knows? You might be able to renew a meaningful friendship out of the ashes of a terrible relationship.
Q. How to dump a friend: I have been great friends with three other women whose children were in my daughter’s kindergarten class. They are all smart and funny and we’ve been on a group chat for years. Our children are in high school now and are no longer particularly close, but these women are my great friends. We have all seen a lot of challenges. Two divorces, many layoffs, sick kids, sick parents, battles with the school system, frustrating husbands, etc.
One of the three is particularly chatty. Her texts are not brief. We’ve teased her about it over the years. In the past couple of years, though, she’s lost her sense of humor about being teased and, frankly, about a lot of things. She often bitterly compares her life to mine, but her husband is supportive and does the laundry and the grocery shopping. Her kids are healthy and smart. Over the past six months, the group message has fallen apart. The two other members have excused themselves from it, saying privately that our complaining friend was just too much. My complaining friend was very hurt. I resisted talking about it with her because it wasn’t my story to tell, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Now I get a lot of texts from her. We go for a walk together every Saturday morning and I encourage her to save all of her news for the walk but she likes to text as she moves through the week. I’m tired of being a sounding board for what I increasingly feel are her petty complaints. She’s not happy, and it’s not helpful for me to compare my life with hers. What do I do about her? What language do I use to say “you are too much”?
A: Since you’ve known this woman for over 15 years and have weathered “two divorces, many layoffs, sick kids, sick parents, battles with the school system, [and] frustrating husbands” together, I think you can and should have a conversation with her about this. It’s fine not to bring up your mutual friends’ divestiture from the group chat—it is, as you say, their story to tell her—but you have a longstanding friendship that’s very clearly dissolving as a direct result of her behavior, and she’s clearly aware on some level that people are pulling away from her. Tell her, “I’m nervous about speaking to you about this, because I care about you and don’t want to cause you pain, but you’ve seemed very unhappy over the last few years, and I don’t know how to be helpful to you. Your life seems happy and stable from the outside, but the overwhelming message I get from you, especially over text message, is that you’re unhappy and unfulfilled. Can we talk about this?” You know her well, you care about her well-being, and you’ve noticed this behavior push others away over the last few years. It may be that she’s depressed and hasn’t been able to find the words to explain how she can be so unhappy in the midst of comfort; it may be that she’s adopted grumbling as a way of life and needs to have someone lovingly speak truth to her so she can realize how alienating her behavior has become. Either way, I think you are uniquely situated to have this conversation with her.
Q. Should I apologize?: I need to know if I should call and apologize to my sister. Currently, I am recovering from foot surgery and my husband and I are going through some tough times because we are employed in oil and gas and the business is in a big recession. Last week she called me (I was lying in bed with my foot in the air) and related something to me about her son’s job hunt. I gave her a tip to pass on to him based on my experience as a hiring manager. I guess I should have asked first, because she experienced that tip as a criticism but it wasn’t meant that way and I was hardly at my best—something I told her at the beginning of the call. She asked if she could talk to me about my “attitude” and I said no she could not. She proceeded to berate me so I hung up since I was pretty upset, not to mention high on painkillers. I got the definite impression she was more interested in unloading than on passing on something helpful to me. What irks me is that for the last three years I have supported her with hours on the phone and trips across the country, meeting with lawyers, at times to the detriment of my own family. I haven’t called back and I don’t feel like calling back. I feel that the one time I needed some slack and a little understanding I did not get it from someone for whom I have given a lot. She is, however, my sister—I have decided to be less involved as it’s not helping her to become independent and I need to focus on my own life. But should I be the one to call her since I am the one who hung up on her?
A: Sure, you should call her back. One of the worst things one can do when locked into an argument with a family member is get trapped into zero-sum thinking: “I remember X, Y, and Z time when she got something out of me and I didn’t, and I can’t let my score drop any further, so I’m not going to initiate an apology or reconciliation,” and then suddenly 20 years have gone by and you don’t know your sister any more. Call her and tell her that you’re sorry you hurt her feelings, that you wanted to be helpful and not critical, and that you’ll ask in the future before offering advice. If she seems receptive, you can share that you’ve been going through a difficult time due to the recession and your recent injury, and that you’re sorry if you’ve been taking out any of that frustration and uncertainty on her, but that you could use her love and support. If her response is judgmental or resentful, then you might be justified in pulling back, but I think you should try asking for what you need from her first.
Q. Me or him: My partner and I are going to attend his annual friend gathering. These are friends he has had since grade school and keeping in touch with them means a lot to him. There is one person that has made every effort to shun me publicly. It is so obvious, I try to ignore it and everyone in our group knows this. On top of this, this person will make an effort to greet my partner and chat him up. I feel this person’s actions are publicly announcing, “I hate you, everyone in our group knows it, including your partner, and guess what? He knows this and is still my friend! So ha on you!” But my partner, for the sake of social niceties, goes along with it. I’ve expressed how hurt and humiliated I am when he takes such a stance. I’ve asked him for once to mingle with everyone else in the group and not acknowledge this person … in essence to choose for once to ally with me instead. However, my partner says to shun this person is to be rude and goes against his identity as a fellow human. I say he is choosing his moral values of kindness and keeping peace with this person over honoring my wish for him to be on my side when this person shuns me publicly. I don’t know whether I am being petty and have to get over it and respect my partner’s stance, or feel hurt that he values his pacifism over me being shunned.
A: I’m not sure that “pacifism” is the most appropriate word for your boyfriend’s strategy; “passivity” might better fit the bill. Your suggestion, however, that your boyfriend return shunning with shunning, is not much better either. Between this Scylla and Charybdis I would like to offer a third option. This year, your boyfriend should make an effort to include you—“[Shunner], you remember [Girlfriend]?”—and if he notices you are being pointedly left out, he should engage you in conversation himself. This might go a lot further than if all three of you careened around the room pretending not to notice the others were there. If this strategy gets you nowhere, and your boyfriend’s friend continues his campaign to freeze you out, it would be perfectly appropriate for your boyfriend to say (kindly! and in keeping with his “identity as a fellow human!”) to him: “I’ve noticed that you have made it a point not to speak to my girlfriend when we’re together, and it’s bewildering and painful to me. Would it be possible for you to try to greet her and make polite small talk with her when you see her? It would mean a lot to me.”
Mallory Ortberg: That’s all for this week, gentles. Until next week: Redeem the time, for the hour is evil.