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: Happy Tuesday! Let’s chat.
Q. Am I paranoid?: This is going to sound like a joke, but I am serious. I am convinced my boss is trying to kill me. I am a diabetic, and struggle with it. She knows that. I came back from the doctor not too long ago and told people my blood sugars were really high again. The next day my boss brought in a box of oranges for the break room. She brings in doughnuts a lot and likes to surprise us with afternoon treats of smoothies. Our holiday lunch consisted of two entrées: fried chicken and pizza, neither of which I should be eating. There was salad too, but not much. And the desserts were overwhelming. I know my boss doesn’t like me. Luckily she can’t get rid of me easily. But now I’m wondering if she might be actually trying to get me to ruin my diabetic diet and end up in a diabetic coma or worse. I asked a couple of co-workers about it, but they just laughed. But I’m serious. Do you think I have a case to take to HR here?
A: I think you may safely downgrade the threat level here. You are likely correct in assuming that your boss does not like you, but it does not necessarily follow that she wishes to harm you physically. Based on your letter, she has not attempted to offer you any of these treats directly but merely brought them into the shared break room for all employees to accept or decline, as they so choose. This is, at most, a passive snub of your diet, not an attempt on your life—she isn’t sneaking sugar into your coffee or stealing your diabetic-friendly lunches out of the communal fridge. You do not have a case to take to HR, as your boss is well within her rights to bring treats, even unhealthy ones, into the break room. You are well within your rights to decline, and to bring alternative treats of your own.
It’s worth pointing out that extreme blood sugar levels can lead to confusion, disorientation, and paranoia. That’s not to say your diabetes must be the sole cause of your unwarranted fears, but it’s a possibility very much worth exploring. You should inform your doctor that you’re experiencing a heightened sense of persecution and make sure you’re both committed to a robust treatment plan.
Q. The bank of Mom: I have two adult children whom I love very much; however, neither of them is fiscally responsible. They are both in their 30s, and I am fully supporting them both—paying for their homes, utilities, and everything. Neither of them works full time, and they don’t seem to be interested in doing so. When I tell them to get a full-time job and pay for their own lives, they have nothing but excuses for not finding one, or they say they will but never do. I obviously have failed miserably at raising them, but I cannot go back and fix it. And while I can afford what I do for them (thankfully), I need to save for retirement—not cater to a couple of adults who have no desire to launch. How can I close the bank of Mom?
A: The actual details of closing down the bank of Mom are fairly straightforward—stop writing checks, change your mobile banking passwords, delete your children’s information from PayPal/Venmo/etc., stop all automated payments, shut down any joint credit cards or checking accounts, change your PIN and credit card numbers if your children have them memorized, close your wallet. These actions need not be dependent upon anything your children do or don’t do. Whether they find work immediately or not, thrive or flail, is up to them now, not you; you can do this immediately, right now, without getting anyone else’s approval or support or justifying your decision.
The emotional work behind the details, though, is a little trickier. You have a sincere, long-term desire to stop sponsoring your children’s lifestyles, but it sounds like you have trouble when it comes to execution. If you find therapy helpful in setting and maintaining limits with your children, find a therapist or support group. If you don’t, consider asking a friend to help hold you accountable and check in to make sure you’re staying strong in your decision to stop subsidizing your kids. Hire a financial planner to help you set and achieve your new personal goals. Prepare yourself for the very real possibility that your children will try throwing tantrums and guilt trips your way when they realize you’re making good on your threat to cut them off. Make it clear that you love them and want the best for them, but you’re not going to have an argument about your decision, and that you will not be participating in any conversations that are designed to convince you to start giving them money again. Be prepared to hang up more than once if you have to.
Don’t think of yourself as having “failed miserably” at raising your children, if only because you’re likelier to cave if you feel guilty about being an ineffective parent. Think of this as a long-overdue decision that will ultimately help your children become self-sufficient and independent—it’s your last, best gift to them.
Q. Why would an anti-smoker start smoking?: My mom used to be quite anti-smoking. She said she had never tried it and never wanted to, that it smelled terrible, and that it was like burning up money. Recently, I started noticing the smell of cigarette smoke on her. I peeked into her purse and found an opened cigarette pack! Why would she do this? I am terrified about the future. What should I say to my mom? Should I just mention what I’ve smelled and ask her about it, or should I be direct and make clear that I know she’s smoking? I guess I don’t actually know for sure, but I can’t see any other explanation for what I found. I really want to know why she would smoke, after rightly being so against it.
A: I think your mother is the person best equipped to answer this question. There’s no reason to pretend you didn’t see what you did. Just tell her, as calmly as you can, that you’ve noticed she’s started smelling of smoke and that you saw cigarettes in her purse, and you’re wondering what’s going on and if everything is OK. (As for why your mother has started smoking, I can’t speculate as to the exact circumstances that led to her first cigarette, but I’ve got about 15 years of personal research that confirm they are incredible stress relievers and massively addictive, which presumably has something to do with why she overcame her initial reservations.) Let her know that if she’s interested in quitting, you’ll do everything you can to support her—and that it only gets harder to quit the longer you smoke, so there’s no time like the present.
Q. Parental misgivings: I’ve been with my girlfriend for a number of years, and I know she’s thinking about getting married. I love her and I’m thinking about it too, but I’m hitting a mental roadblock when it comes to her parents. I find it difficult to spend long periods of time with them—they’re overbearing people without a lot of respect for alone time or personal space. Their house is filthy, full of junk, and it reeks of cigarettes and dog urine. They’re passionate about their work in an industry that I not only am ethically opposed to but also am involved in activism against. My girlfriend is very different from her parents, but marriage would involve a closer relationship with them. I’m nervous to commit to spending holidays with them for the rest of my life, not to mention dealing with their debt or medical care as they age. I realize this is kind of the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it’s also my Real Life. How much weight should I give my misgivings about my girlfriend’s parents when I’m thinking about our future?
A: A fair amount, I should think. Do you assume you would have a closer relationship with your girlfriend’s parents after marriage just because that’s what marriage usually entails, or do you know that your girlfriend wants to spend a lot of time with them and plans on taking them in when they can no longer care for themselves? What would be your ideal relationship with your future in-laws? How often would you be willing to visit them a year, and would your wife be willing to stay in a hotel? If you had children, how often would you want them to spend the night, and would you have concerns about secondhand smoke, or the effects of the ammonia from untreated dog urine on your children’s respiratory systems, etc.? Figure out what you’re willing to compromise on, what you need, and what you’re capable of, and have this conversation with your girlfriend before you get married. If you two have wildly different ideas of how you’ll relate to your in-laws after you get married, it’s better to hash your disagreements out in therapy or one on one now than after you’ve legally formalized your relationship.
Q. Re: The bank of mom: If Mom’s name is on anything (lease, car note, etc.), Mom’s credit will be wrecked when the kids default. I suggest she take a good look at how closing the bank of Mom will affect HER and take steps to protect herself. (Also, for “Paranoid”: I, too, struggle with controlling my blood sugar. Bring your own food. Seriously. You do not need to apologize. Just bring your own food. That way you know what’s in it and can calibrate your meds accordingly.)
A: Thanks for that—it’s worth bearing in mind that if Mom co-signed anything, it will be more complicated than just stopping payment if she wants to make sure her credit doesn’t take a hit.
Q. Great stepfather: I’m really not sure what to do here. I have a really great stepfather. He married my mom when I was 10, and I immediately became his daughter. I adored him then, and I still do. He’s just the greatest guy. My mom died five years ago, and of course my stepdad is still my dad. He was there at my college graduation, when I got married, and for every other highlight in my life. The fact that my mom is no longer with us didn’t matter a bit to us. It seems to matter to other people, though. Last month my dad had a stroke. He was in the hospital for a while and is now in rehab. I want to bring him home so I can take care of him. People in my life seem to think I’m crazy. They say variations along the lines of “but he’s not your real dad. Why would you do that for somebody who isn’t your real dad?” They don’t understand that he is my real dad. I try to explain, but nobody seems to get it. Is it so odd to have a stepfather so great that you want to treat him like you would a “real dad”?
A: It is not odd in the least. This man raised you since you were 10 years old, and he’s your father in every meaningful sense of the word. The people in your life who think you’re wrong to care for him as a parent just because you’re not related by blood are out of line, and I hope you have at least some friends who understand how you can form a family bond with a nongenetic relation. Next time someone brings it up, tell them, “He helped raised me, he’s been there for me at every meaningful stage of my life, and I love him and consider him my real father. If you’re having trouble understanding how that works, please keep it to yourself; I’m going through a difficult time right now and would appreciate your support, or at the very least your silence.”
Q. Split decision: I’m in my 30s and married to a sweet, wonderful man but lately am not sure I want to be. I never really dated and was only in two relationships (my husband being the second). Friends tell me I skipped “the bad part” and didn’t miss anything by finding a keeper right away, but I feel like I missed out on a lifetime’s worth of experiences, to the point I keep considering leaving an otherwise functional marriage for the single life (and yes, I realize I could create a lifetime of experiences with my husband but can’t muster interest in the idea). I’m not even sure I’d get back into dating if I left; I wasn’t successful at it before and can’t imagine putting myself out there on Tinder. I care about him but am not sure if I love him, and feel awful as he loves me. I know grass can seem greener, and leaving might mean a lifetime alone, but I can’t shake the idea. Should I risk a solid partnership for the potential of more experience or something I feel passionate about, or am I just expecting too much and should be content with what we have?
A: I’m not sure what specific “experiences” you’re looking to have—to have sex with other people? To meet new people and form a lot of short-term relationships? To go on a lot of coffee dates?—but the part of your letter that jumps out at me is the part where you’re not sure if you love your husband. It would make little sense to leave a satisfying, loving marriage for a vague promise of “more experiences,” but if you can’t bring yourself to muster even a bare minimum of interest in the idea of creating a “lifetime of experiences” with your husband, then you should seriously contemplate parting ways.
It’s also worth investigating how you found yourself in this situation. Did you love your husband when you married him? If so, what’s changed, and are you willing to try to reconnect? If not, why did you marry someone you felt so mildly about, and what’s to stop you from stumbling half-heartedly into another commitment again after you leave him? Whether you leave your husband or not, these are questions you’ll have to face openly and honestly.
Q. Fact or fiction: My partner of a year and a half is a writer in his spare time. He completed a great book before we met and is currently working on a sequel. I love his writing and find his creativity a huge turn-on. I can’t wait to see him find more success with the second part to his story. Here is the problem: The books are largely inspired by reality. He made himself the protagonist and all of the characters are drawn from real life. His new book features a girl he tried dating in the past as his love interest. Knowing that he is writing their fictional romance makes me feel horrible and insecure. No amount of reassurance on his part that it’s just a story makes me feel any better. I know everyone has their private fantasies, but I feel like his are being written to the page and will be made available to the public, and for me to be a supportive partner I have to read the book and actively imagine this romance between him and another woman playing out in my own head. Psychologically I know that will negatively affect me and our relationship; it already is. My solution is to not read the book at all, but my partner takes offense at that, and I know that not reading it will make me feel like an unsupportive girlfriend who is not involved in an important part of his life. I think my partner (who, I should add, is wonderful in all aspects) has grown tired of trying to reassure me and seems frustrated that this is such an issue for me. He says that knowing how much it upsets me stifles his creative process. I don’t know how to put my hurt feelings aside so as to encourage his writing, and instead I find myself pulling away in an effort to give him freedom to write as he pleases and also to protect myself from feeling this way. Therapy is not a feasible option right now. Please help.
A: I once dated a girl who was writing a book about her relationship with her first girlfriend, and this was (to my mind) immeasurably preferable to dating someone who was writing a book about her relationship with me. Bear in mind that a roman à clef is not the same thing as “private fantasies”; this book is not your boyfriend’s attempt to pretend he is still with somebody else but an attempt to explore a significant period in his previous life. It is not a commentary on his feelings for you and it is not a sign that he is not over his ex (it also, for what it’s worth, may very well not be any more successful than the first book).
Your boyfriend is well within his rights to ask you to be supportive of the fact that he’s writing a book and has had meaningful relationships with people who aren’t you; he is not within his rights to blame the breakdown in his “creative process” on the fact that his girlfriend hasn’t read his book. He does not need your permission or approval to write, and he should not suggest that your sign-off is somehow necessary in order for him to do so. You ought to work on putting those feelings aside, but if you’re not ready to read the entire project just yet, you don’t have to force yourself to do it tomorrow. If it’s easier for you, ask him to describe the outline of the book before reading a few pages, and give yourself a little time before picking up a draft. He can write as much as he wants and you can feel as much as you want; neither of you is wrong in that sense. You should, however, stop making him try to reassure you that this book isn’t his attempt to make you feel insecure or jealous—that’s not his responsibility, but yours.