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.
Q. Ashes to ashes: My father recently died, and per his final wishes, my mother had him cremated with the intent to bury the ashes in the family plot. Now extended family members are asking for some of the ashes to make into keepsakes, like keychains or necklaces. When my husband died several years ago, my in-laws asked for the same. (When did this become a thing?!) I personally find this a little creepy, so I declined my in-laws’ request, preferring to follow my husband’s wishes. This resulted in my being completely cut out of their lives. Mom doesn’t think splitting the ashes is appropriate either, but perhaps with my experience lingering in her mind, I’m just as unsure about her proposed solution: She’s suggested burning the sympathy cards we received and providing these ashes to the family for their keepsakes, while entombing the real ashes in their entirety. Theoretically, none would be the wiser, but is this just ethically wrong? Or would it be harmless and perhaps provide some comfort to the grieving relatives?
A: If nothing else, let this be a reminder to all of us who do not care to have our cremated remains split up among our family members to include a specific directive about this in our wills. I have to, I think, come down against deceiving the recently bereaved, even if the deceit is kindly meant and unlikely to be discovered. Either accept or decline your relatives’ request and face whatever consequences come your way as a result.
Q. Dry January: This may be on the more arbitrary side of questions you get, but I’m have trouble resolving a dispute with a partner over a concept known as Drynuary. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a practice where people abstain from drinking during the month of January as a way to kick off a healthy new year after all the holiday boozing leading up to it. My boyfriend and I only decided to participate after I won a bet. The terms of the bet were set beforehand and included options to either participate 100 percent, do a modified version (like just drinking on weekends), or just not participate at all, all of which he agreed to with a handshake. I won the bet fair and square and decided we were calling alcohol completely quits for the whole month.
At first he was on board, but he has since begun complaining about how it affects his lifestyle, expressed that I’m not sympathetic enough to this, and that it was insensitive I didn’t at least bargain the terms of our bet after I won, to consider how difficult it’d be for him. I’ve offered some case-by-case basis leeway, but he’s right that I have little sympathy. Without his support, though, the point of digging in and doing Drynuary together is pretty defeated, and now I’m the one who’s upset. I just wanted to check whether I’m a jerk for wishing I had a little more solidarity in something we shook on? It should be noted I will not make joint decisions for us based on a bet in the future, lesson learned, but here we had a bargain.
A: Woof. This does not sound like a situation that is bringing either of you a great deal of joy. It’s one thing to decide to reset your relationship to alcohol under the arbitrary auspices of January, but it’s quite another to ask your (clearly reluctant) partner to join you, even if you did win a bet “fair and square.” I would encourage you to not use bets in future to make joint decisions as a couple, no matter how fair the parameters. There’s a reason most adults don’t base their personal and professional decisions on bet outcomes. They’re a poor substitute for actually discussing what you want.
If your boyfriend doesn’t want to knock off drinking for a month, don’t insist on it. You do Drynuary as much as you like. If you come to any conclusions about your own relationship to alcohol or the relationship you’d like any long-term partner of yours to have to alcohol, you can deal with that later. If you want him to begrudgingly drag himself to Jan. 31 because part of you is concerned about his drinking, that’s an entirely separate conversation. If merely you want him to do it because you “won” something and you want to hold onto your victory, let it go. Either way, let him decide whether he wants to drink.
Q. Adopted trumps biological: I’m adopted, and recently a woman from my biological family (technically my maternal grandmother) reached out to me. She wants to meet me and have a relationship, but I’m not interested in getting to know her or anyone else from my biological family. I feel no attachment to or interest in this woman; as far as I’m concerned, I already have four lovely grandparents. I’m also worried that if I indulge in one request, the floodgates will open, and my entire biological family will think they “have me back.” I have a family, and it isn’t my biological family. I’ve found many of their Facebook pages, and they aren’t the kind of people I want to be around—they’re homophobic Trump supporters, and seeing as I’m a liberal lesbian (I don’t think she knows), I feel like I was incredibly lucky to be adopted by the family I’m a part of now. How do I politely but firmly make it clear that I’m not going to have any sort of relationships with these people, now or ever?
A: You can ignore the message, or you can say, “Thanks for reaching out; I’m very happily adopted and doing well. I’m not available to meet, but I wish you the best.” Then feel free to ignore or block subsequent requests. You don’t owe her, or any of your biological family, an explanation or an argument if you don’t want to have a relationship with them. If any other readers who’ve had a similar disinterest in connecting with their families of origin want to share their strategies, please let us know—I’d like to hear them.
Q. Over the line: I am in my mid-20s and often engage in “friend with benefits” relationships because I am not interested in a relationship. These FWBs sometimes seem to be more interested in a serious relationship with me, but I am straightforward about what I want. The issue is that my roommate and good friend, Patrick, seems to really care about the feelings of these gentlemen. Everytime I start seeing someone new, he’ll go off about how I am messing with their emotions. Recently, this has blown way up. I can’t even have a conversation without his telling me how selfish and manipulative I must be, even though my current FWB has made it clear that while he’s disappointed I don’t want a relationship, he understands and accepts my choices. I’ve had a feeling that Patrick either has something else going on or has feelings for me. Recently another friend confirmed that he’s been going through a lot lately: A girl he was seeing that he really liked had broken it off, and he also got another girl pregnant, and she decided to terminate the pregnancy. I am very upset that he has omitted this information while digging so deeply into my personal life. Am I doing anything wrong? Is Patrick over the line? Also, is it selfish to be so upset that my friend omitted this information from me while attacking my personal life?
A: The fact that Patrick has recently been dumped and dated someone who got an abortion is entirely irrelevant. If he had recently tried hummus for the first time and had broken his leg, it would be irrelevant. If he had recently come down with a cold and gotten fired, it would be irrelevant. Going through a difficult period in one’s own dating life does not give one a free pass to berate one’s friends for having casual sex. Do not concern yourself with Patrick’s motivations or relationship status, as they are distractions from his wildly unacceptable and inappropriate behavior. Make it clear that from now on your dating decisions are none of his business, that they are not up for debate, that he is way out of line, and that if he tries to bring it up again, you will end the conversation. You need a different roommate as soon as possible, as this is not a tenable living situation. Whether or not you can continue a friendship with Patrick after you two are no longer living together depends entirely on your interest in continuing contact and his ability to apologize and knock it off—permanently.
Q. Friend’s husband may be an alcoholic: I have a work friend whom I have grown close with over the last year and a half. We have lunch together several times a week and spend time out of work together very frequently. She is a wonderful friend—sweet and smart and fun to be around. However, she recently married a man I believe is an alcoholic. I first considered this possibility when she had to take him home from a small party I hosted after only staying an hour, because he was too inebriated to even stand up. She excused this by saying he “pregamed too hard.” On the several occasions I have watched a movie with her or had dinner at her home, her husband has consistently consumed more than six beers each evening, even on weeknights. Recently, she disclosed at lunch that “headaches” have been causing him trouble with missing work, and she joked that perhaps he was hungover and half-laughed about it. What is my role here? I care very much for this woman and don’t want to hurt her feelings, but I am scared for her emotional well-being should his behavior become abusive (if it isn’t yet!) and her financial well-being should her husband lose his job. Should I say something?
A: Bear in mind that while you two are close now, this woman is still primarily your co-worker, and the more involved you get in her personal life, the more potential havoc this could wreak on your career. That’s not to say you should back off your friendship entirely; it’s just a reminder that it’s easier to maintain than to re-establish boundaries at work. You can keep having lunch and spending time together outside of work, but don’t go back to her home or spend time with them as a couple if you’d like to maintain some distance from his drinking. He’s not, as you point out, abusive to her, so you don’t need to jump the gun and make an unnecessary intervention. If you’re determined to speak with her about it, be prepared for a defensive reaction or even a total denial of the indirect concerns she’s previously raised. Don’t press the issue if she isn’t receptive, and don’t bring it up at work. Focus on what she’s said and make the conversation opt-in rather than opt-out: “You’ve mentioned a few times that you think it’s possible your husband’s drinking might be causing trouble for him at work, and I wanted to check in with you. Are you concerned about his drinking? Do you want to talk about it?” If she says no, leave it alone. If she says yes, bear in mind that you can’t help her change his drinking habits, but you can help her find resources in caring for herself and figuring out what’s right for her.
Q. Re: Adopted trumps biological: “No thanks” is a complete sentence. You don’t owe them any other explanation. Don’t give one. That opens you up to them trying to argue why you are wrong. I would add a few more points:
First, make sure your Facebook and other social sites are set to private. If they know your name, they can find ways of weaseling into your life (if they aren’t the type of people to take no for an answer). Ask your friends to not tag you on anything public.
Second, I would be tactful in how you say “no thanks.” I had zero interest in my bio family. Then I developed a few medical issues that required a family history (doctor’s orders). So I used a confidential intermediary and now have a distant, but cordial relationship with bio mother and her family. I have a bio father whom I never, ever want to meet. I have told him this. Nevertheless, he tries to have contact every few years and has gotten increasingly hostile and sneaky about it. Just be prepared that if they are unreasonable people, they won’t take “no” for an answer.
Third, tell your family about this attempt to reconnect. That way, should anyone contact them, they know to provide no information. I had a “long-lost college friend” call my mother-in-law. Turns out it was someone from my bio father’s family.
Q. He may want kids, I definitely do not—what do we do?: My partner and I are a fantastic match. We’ve had enough relationships to know we have something special. And i’m not just talking infatuation. We put in so much work on ourselves and our relationship, especially during the first year to get where we are now, though our desire to do so speaks to our compatibility. (Couples therapy in the first year does wonders!) Our problem: He “may” want kids. And I definitely do not. He’s 36; I’m 32. We have talked this out and will keep doing that, and he is working through his decision on his own as well. It’s quite easy to know what to do if he were certain. We’d have to break up. But he doesn’t know. And of course he doesn’t know when he will know. How long do I give it before I can’t take it anymore? Do we wait to move in together till he decides? He loves me so much I can imagine he’ll stay despite at least some longing to have kids. But that would break my heart. Do we just see what happens? See if being with me is enough? (That sounds like an awful setup.) Are we doomed? We both don’t know how to proceed. (Besides more couple’s therapy.)
A: I think you two are actually doing everything right. That doesn’t make the situation immediately perfect or resolve the long-term ambiguity. Nothing will do that, I’m afraid. But you’re both being honest and upfront about what you want (to the best of your ability to recognize what you want), and neither of you has, as yet, run into an absolute dealbreaker. Given that he’s not absolutely sure, and that you two are currently very happy, I don’t think you should hold off on moving in together or committing to one another just because someday in the future your partner might move from “maybe” to “I absolutely must” when it comes to having children.
You both know that’s a possibility, and you’re both resigned to the reality that, if that day ever comes, you will have to break up. But that doesn’t mean that right now you have to live as if that day is your destiny. Just because the future is uncertain does not mean you should end what you have now. Trust that your partner will continue to be honest and let you know if his feelings ever change. It may be that the two of you will together mourn the loss of his not-quite-strong-enough desire to have children. It may be that he will never feel more than mild interest in the subject, and you will have a happy, lifelong relationship. It may be that he ultimately decides he must have children, and you two will have to part ways—but you still will have had a wonderful few years together.
Q. Drunk friend always needs babysitter: I have a close-knit group of four friends from college. We used to go out all the time together, and they were a motivating factor for me moving back to the city where the other three live. As we’ve gotten further from being in college, we’ve started to drink less, both in frequency and amount, even on special occasions and the like. Three of us are on the same page about it, but the fourth continues to drink to blackout nearly every time we got out with him, often to the point of being unable to get home on his own, leaving us to deal with the fallout of his harsh insults to others and often completely unreasonable demands (such as buying plane tickets to a distant city on a whim) before bringing him home to sleep on one of our couches. As a result, we ask him to do things less and less. Anytime we try to bring it up, he brushes us off and says, “We’ll talk about it later,” only to confront us “later,” which is when he is already very drunk. He is very defensive about drinking and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. How can we bring up our issues with him without alienating him?
A: Alienate him! Do not feel in the least bit guilty about alienating your friend. This is a case where alienation is your only option, unless you would like to continue being insulted for refusing to fly to Monaco on a moment’s notice with a drunk belligerent. Don’t “try to bring” the issue up; tell him directly that you’re not going to spend time with him because his drinking is out of control. You do not need his permission to stop socializing with him, and you don’t need him to agree with you in order to make your decision. The longer you tiptoe around his feelings, the more you will enable his destructive binge drinking. You can’t make him stop, but you can stop accommodating him. You’ll be happier and better off for it.
Mallory Ortberg: Blanket advice for everyone this week: Say no to something, just once, just because you don’t feel like doing it. (Use this advice sparingly.)