Danny M. Lavery, 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 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.
Danny: Hello, companions. Let’s walk a road together.
Q. Retort to a rude comment: I asked a familiar-looking, elegant woman at the gym if her name was Maria, an old and well-liked acquaintance I had not seen for years. I am a white woman, the person I asked was Hispanic. She replied, “No, my name is Vangie. We all look alike.” I was PO’d, and I want to challenge her regarding all the assumptions she engaged in when making that reply next time I see her. Should I just let it drop?
A: Buddy. Guy. Chief. Do not compound your rudeness by “challenging” this woman for telling you her real name. The person who made assumptions here was you. The person who was rude was you. (If you’re that unsure whether your elegant gym compatriot is a total stranger or an old acquaintance, try “I’m so sorry, but you look familiar to me—is it possible that we’ve met somewhere?” rather than “Hey, you seem elegant. Are you Maria?”) You got caught looking foolish and low-key racist, and now you’re embarrassed, and you want to blame the other woman for your feelings; just acknowledge that you messed up, and don’t start a fight with another member of your gym because she wasn’t willing to pretend to be someone you knew once in order to help you save face.
Q. Should I end a relationship for being too good?: I have been dating a girl for a few months and things are going scarily well. Things have been progressing, and both of us are worried that we could actually be exactly what the other is looking for in the long term. The problem is, however, that I will very likely be moving in eight months for a job (that lasts three years), and we are both wary of long-distance relationships. I’ll find out in March if/where I’ll be working, or if I’ll be staying in the city we both live in now, though it’s about a 75 percent chance I’ll be leaving. So is it irresponsible of us to continue dating? Are we just making the inevitable breakup more painful? If we should stay together, is there any way to make our inevitable separation less devastating? If we should break up, is going cold turkey best? Spending time with her is hands down my favorite thing in the world, but I could force myself to stop if it’ll be best for her in the long run. Please help.
A: Worst-case scenario, you two keep dating another eight months before you have to move away. That’s eight more months of getting to do your “favorite thing in the world,” and even if you two don’t stay together long-term, eight months of joyful companionship is nothing to sneeze at. You might die in seven months and not have to move at all. If you two are happy together right now, and you’re both honest about what you want, I don’t think you need to cross any bridges before you come to them. Breakups, especially breakups with someone you really care about, are always painful, and there’s no way to inoculate yourself against them—don’t sacrifice your present happiness just because you might have to break up later this year.
Q. Wanting an open relationship: I’m thinking about asking my girlfriend for a (purely physical) open relationship as she is not very interested in sex and only wants to do it every few weeks at most. I am very committed to her but don’t feel that our current arrangement is sustainable for me in the long term. We both get jealous quite easily, and I know I couldn’t handle her sleeping with other people; would it be selfish to ask if she would be open to an arrangement where I get a free pass and she doesn’t? She’s very self-conscious about her low sex drive, as it was the undoing of her last relationship, so I’m worried that asking her for this will hurt her and drive us apart.
A: When you say your girlfriend is “very self-conscious” about her sex drive, it suggests to me that you two have not had many (any?) conversations about your sex life and what you two might want from it, and I think you’ll need to have at least a few of those before an open relationship is on the table. Open relationships, even the most casual/physically based ones, still require a lot of conversation and negotiation—think at least three long talks to every new sexual encounter. Maybe five. So if you two aren’t used to talking about what you want in bed, what you’re willing and unwilling to compromise on, what you’re afraid of and what you need, then an open relationship may not be very useful to you. Talk first about what an ideal sex life would look like for each of you.
Ask yourself, specifically, what you want to change—do you want to feel more desired? Do you want more physical touch in your relationship? Do you just want to increase the number of orgasms you have every week? Would, say, incorporating your girlfriend’s physical presence into your regular masturbation routine go a long way toward making you feel more fulfilled in your relationship, or are you looking for something more reciprocal? Does your girlfriend feel self-conscious about her sex drive because of how other partners have responded to it, or would she prefer to have a higher libido? Is she happy with the way things are? You have a ton of questions to answer (together!) before you can start talking about which one of you gets a hall pass.
Q. Re: Retort to a rude comment: This is a genuine question—how was the OP being low-key racist? I agree that the phrasing you used to pose the question was much better, but I’m not quite sure how her version of the question was rude and racist.
A: It’s a fairly well-documented trend known as the “cross-race effect.” You can read more about it here. It’s not always conscious, nor always malicious, but the cumulative effect can be both socially and interpersonally exhausting.
Q. To tell?: Recently when visiting my hometown, I met up with a friend I’ve known since I was a toddler. After a pleasant dinner (and too many drinks), long story short, my friend ended up forcing himself upon me, attempting to kiss and grope me. I had had too much to drink and froze up, and as soon as I was feeling better I left. I am happily married and have yet to tell my husband about it, partly due to the shame of having made a bad decision to drink too much and partly because I felt I could have been more forceful in stopping the advance. I always considered myself a strong person, and in light of the recent national conversation on sexual assault, I wish I would have done something differently. (I did say “no, please stop,” etc.) Should I tell my husband this happened? I am sick over it and never intend to speak to this formerly trusted lifelong friend again. Part of me would like to pretend it never happened.
A: I’m so sorry this happened to you. One thing that’s important to stress is that it’s not a “bad decision” to get drinks with an old friend, or even to get drunk with an old friend—people do it every day. That’s what the entire series run of Cheers was about, and it’s not an invitation to be forcibly groped. You were with someone you thought you could trust, and he violated that trust through absolutely no fault of your own. You told him no, and you told him to stop. What your former friend did was terrible, but it in no way makes you less strong or calls your judgment into question. If absolutely nothing else, I hope you know that you did not invite this assault and that your ex-friend bears sole responsibility for his actions.
I encourage you to tell your husband, if only because he could be a resource and a support to you as you process this. You do not have to, but you get to, if you want, so that you do not have to be alone. If you’re not sure how to tell him, consider speaking to a friend or a family member first, or a therapist, or someone at the national sexual assault hotline (1-800-656-4673). That last one may prove most helpful as you have the remove of speaking on the phone and are completely anonymous. If the idea of telling someone you know in-person feels too huge right now, you can start with someone whose job it is to talk about sexual assault, who will understand your concerns and desire to pretend it never happened, who is not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to do. You should tell your husband only when you’re ready, but I think you will feel better telling someone so this does not feel like a secret and a burden you have to carry alone.
Q. Moral obligation: The company I work for shares office space with another company. The other company has an assistant who I speak to who’s been there for a little less than a year. She is very nice; unfortunately she’s going through another round of court hearings with her ex. From what she’s told me, she’s barely making enough money and told me how hard it was to find her job due to her age (close to 50). The problem is that her employer told my boss, in front of me, that he plans on firing her as soon as their busy season ends at the beginning of January. She’s being fired due to her poor performance—it takes her full days for things that should only take an hour or two—at least that’s what her boss said. I like her and I talk to her, but I don’t know if I should tell her. On one hand, it’s not my place, but on the other, I can’t imagine just letting her believe everything is good when her boss is counting down the days to let her go. What should I do?
A: You don’t know that this woman’s boss hasn’t had repeated conversations with her about her performance, so you don’t know that she does think everything is good. It’s her boss’ job to communicate his expectations and how she’s living up to them as his employee, and you won’t help anyone by getting in the middle. What you can do is ask your own boss if (s)he can keep future conversations about personnel decisions private and behind closed doors so you’re not put in the uncomfortable position of accidentally knowing someone else is about to get fired before they do.
Q. Invisible tuition assistance: My son attends a small private elementary school. The school has one more grade level after his current one. He’s a bit nerdy and shy but has made one very close friend, and that friendship has really enhanced his experience. I learned from that child’s parents that he will likely not attend next year because of the cost. (The school offers financial aid, but my sense is that results are highly unpredictable/inscrutable.) We are zoned for a different public elementary school than the friend, so my son cannot follow to the same school. (FWIW, both public schools are roughly on par with the private school.) We are stealthily well-off—we happen to live well under our means. I would be happy to pay my son’s friend’s tuition for the final year. I don’t know his parents well enough to feel comfortable offering directly. Would it be wrong to give the money to the school to provide a scholarship for this specific child (and to keep the donor anonymous)?
A: It would not be wrong. It would be kind and delightful. This is the easiest letter I have ever gotten, and I thank you for writing to me. Give the money, keep it anonymous, and try to get to know your son’s friend’s parents better—not so you can someday tell them what you did, but so you can let them know just how much their child’s friendship has meant to you and your family.
Q. Is it OK not to love your extended family?: The holidays are around us and that inevitably means meeting up with extended family. I resent both sides of my family for the mistreatment of my parents after my grandparents died. On both sides it resulted in jealousy, accusations, standoffs, and judgmental comments about their estates. In addition to this, we also did not speak to parts of the family for years at a time. I should also mention that in addition to not growing up with them, most of my cousins are about 15 years older than me, and the generation gap is felt.
Here’s my problem: I don’t love any of them. Not one. At best, I see them twice a year so I can pretend to be cordial, but these family members say how much they love me. It strikes me as odd. They don’t know me, my personality, my wants; they pretend to. And it makes my parents very upset that I don’t love them back. Despite their differences, they still love their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. So my question is: Is it OK to not love them? Do I need to open my heart or fake it a little better?
A: I don’t see why you can’t both open your heart and fake it a little. (You can also skip holidays with the family once in a while if you don’t feel like attending every year; holidays can be special but they are not mandatory and you are an adult.) You have, as far as I can tell, three equally good options:
- Don’t go. You don’t like these people, you don’t have much in common, and you have resentments about the way they treated your parents that you can’t talk to them about. Take yourself to a movie instead.
- Go, and say “It’s great to see you” when what you really mean is “I do not wish you any active harm.” Lie through your teeth, follow the social script, and then take yourself to a movie.
- Go, and ask your relatives questions about themselves in as sincere a tone as you can muster. Maybe you will feel slightly warmer toward them if you act as if you wanted to get to know them. Maybe you will feel exactly the same, but you will have completed a mildly good deed over the course of the day and can forget about their existence until next year.
The choice is yours! None of the options available to you involve cruelty or outright rudeness; any one of them would do you credit, and at least two of them involve getting to see a movie by yourself, which is one of life’s greatest gifts.