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 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.
Q. Is it me?: I am 37, female, and while in my 20s, I was far more focused on my education and career than in meeting anyone. Then in my late 20s, I met and married a man who turned out to be incredibly abusive (verbal, emotional, and toward the end physical). I left him years ago, and I’m in a much better place today. The problem is that I’m back to dating, and I keep running into an issue. My ex-husband is the only person I’ve ever slept with, and it wasn’t great. I don’t dislike sex, but it’s not all that high on my priority list. I want to date, and go out and do fun things, and even, once I get to know someone, cuddle on the couch and watch movies. But actual sex I think of as something incredibly intimate that happens between two people who are in love, and who have had the serious “commitment” talk, regardless of whether marriage is involved. I know that’s a bit old-fashioned of me, but it’s how I feel. And it keeps causing problems. It seems all the guys I date just want to get to the main event. I’ve finally found a guy I really like, but after a month he’s now starting to push a little on defining what “sex” is (he thinks anything less than full penetration is fair game; I consider anything with clothes removed or orgasms involved as sex) and I’m worried this is going to derail something that has the potential to be good. It’s only been a month, and I’m nowhere near ready to say the L-word, but should I be more flexible with what I’m willing to do in the bedroom? At my age, should I stop putting so much importance on the intimacy and trust involved with physical affection and just go with it being a purely physical release? I have nothing against sex—it doesn’t hurt, I don’t have a traumatic experience in my past (that was the one type of abuse the ex didn’t try, thank goodness), and I look forward to it being part of a long-term, committed relationship, but is it fair of me to tell guys I’m interested in that sex is totally off the table until they’ve met my family and we’re at least thinking about long-term togetherness? I feel like I should be more open and modern in my sexuality and thoughts about sex’s role in a relationship, but the idea of it is giving me anxiety attacks, and I have no idea how to even approach the subject. Help!
A: Two things are important to bear in mind here: One is that yes, generally speaking, if you are an adult dating in the United States today who wants to reserve sex (and nudity, and mutual orgasms) for a seriously committed relationship, unless you are a member of a religious community, you’re going to be seen as quite old-fashioned and may lose out on a number of otherwise very compatible partners. The other is that it is absolutely OK to be old-fashioned and to have a very firm idea of what you do and don’t want to do. Be upfront about this when dating, and consider looking for prospective dates who share your goals.
The thing that stands out the most to me is that the prospect of having sex before you are in a committed relationship gives you anxiety attacks. That’s something worth paying attention to, and working out in therapy. You should not have to experience that level and panic and discomfort at the thought of sleeping with someone you like, even if you decide to continue adhering to your rule of “no sex before commitment.” You’ve been through a lot of trauma when it comes to sex and intimacy, and it’s (understandably) difficult for you to trust prospective partners, even ones you really like, because you know what it’s like to trust someone who slowly turns on you. I won’t advise you to be more flexible with your current partner, because at no point do you say anything like you’re eager to sleep with him, or miss having sex, or would like to become more intimate. You sound nervous that you’re going to lose him, full of self-doubt over your own boundaries, and convinced that you should talk yourself into doing something you’re not ready to do because of your age—that’s not a foundation for a healthy sex life.
Q. Collection: So my husband has a collection that he has been working on for 20 years. He’s put a lot time, energy, and love into it. But now he wants to sell off some of the less expensive pieces that he doesn’t care as much about, to make room for others he wants to buy. So he’s spent the last few weeks going through and putting aside pieces he still loves, and packing up the ones he wants to sell. A good friend of his, also a collector, who he’s known for decades, has offered $7,000 for the batch. I know for a fact that these pieces cost a hell of a lot more than that. I’ve said as much, but he just wants it out. He’s not concerned that much about what he gets, just thinking about what new things he can get. While I know this is his choice, I feel like he’s being lowballed, and he’s not getting what he should. I am somewhat invested in this since we have a joint account. So the money he spends is also mine, though I always agreed he should use it—we have no debt, and we pay our bills regularly, and have savings, and I’m able to buy what I want. I know it’s up to him, and I wouldn’t want him telling me what to do if it were my collection. But I can’t get rid of this feeling that he’s being lowballed, and that he can do better. So two questions. How can I make him see that? And If I can’t what can I say to myself to be OK with all this?
A: I’m curious, if both your husband and his friend are experienced collectors, how it is that you’re so sure the amount he’s being offered isn’t reflective of the collection’s worth? But I’ll take your word for it, and assume that your husband could be making a lot more money off of this deal if he were willing to spend a little more time and energy. Since this is a joint expense, maybe you could offer to arrange for an appraisal—if your husband’s primary concern is just to get rid of it, but you’re willing to go a little farther to make sure you get the best possible offer, ask him to hold off on selling until you can see if a higher offer is possible. If it’s not, he can go ahead and sell it to his friend as planned; if the collection seems to be worth a lot more, you might be able to arrange a more favorable sale to someone else. Your husband can take the $7,000 and buy whatever new collectibles he’s got his eye on, and you can take a commission out of whatever else you make and do whatever you like with it.
Q. Lying about money: I am a struggling student who works full time. My sister called begging me for $500 for rent and that she was on the verge of being kicked out. I stupidly wired her the money. It was a lie. Her idiotic dog got out (again) and hit by a car and needed medical attention and she posted about it on social media. I called her on it, and she confessed, saying I wouldn’t give her the money otherwise. The money I sent her was all my savings, my grocery money for two weeks, and leftover birthday money. I lost it. I screamed at her and called a selfish little bitch. She cared more about this stupid dog than her own sister. I am barely keeping my own head above water as is. I had to beg my roommates for food until I got paid. I told my sister this. She took food out my mouth and gave it to her dog. She hung up and then proceeded to trash me on social media. I don’t know what to do now. Please help me.
A: Oh, wow, this is a tangled web and then some. Let’s start with what you can do right now. You’re going to have to apologize, I’m afraid, for calling your sister a “selfish little bitch.” Regardless of how upset you were with her, that was completely out of line, and you won’t be able to have a constructive conversation about what happened between the two of you until that’s out of the way. It will have to be a sincere apology, and you’ll have to make it completely separate from whatever other conversations you two have about trust, honesty, and money. Apologies are best when they’re unadulterated. “I need to apologize for calling you a ‘selfish little bitch’ the last time we talked. That’s not an OK thing to say to you, and just because I was angry does not excuse it; I should never have said it, and I want you to know that, when and if we disagree in the future, even if it’s about something big, I’m not going resort to name-calling again. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
Let’s untangle this a bit more. On the one hand, it was not OK for her to deceive you about the reason she needed the money, and it’s fair for you to feel hurt, angry, and misled. It’s also fair for you to decide you’re not going to lend her money again in the future. On the other hand, I hope you can give her at least a little bit of grace about her “idiotic” dog. She wasn’t asking for money to buy frivolous things she didn’t need. She was trying to care for her pet, who was hurt through no fault of its own. The dog wasn’t trying to get hit by a car, and your sister was panicked and frightened and made a bad decision as a result of those feelings. That doesn’t mean she loves you less than her dog.
If you’ve been able to apologize for what she said, and if you’ve been able to remind yourself that your sister panicked and lied but did not, in fact, delight in taking food directly out of your mouth to feed her dog, then you two can talk about establishing a repayment plan. You may, of course, not get it, and you should resign yourself to the possibility that, unless you’re willing to take your sister to small claims court over $500, you might never see that money again. But if you can both see where the other is coming from—if she can see that you feel unloved and unappreciated and deceived, and if you can see that she lied out of fear and desperation and not because she doesn’t care about you—then you can talk about how this could have gone differently. If she’d told you in the first place what she needed the money for, even if you hadn’t given it to her directly, you might have been able to help her find a payment plan with the animal hospital, or raise money via smaller donations from other friends and family.
As it is, she’s damaged your trust and will have to commit to regaining it over time. Figure out a repayment plan that she can stick with. Even if it’s just $10 or $20 a month—something that would demonstrate she’s aware of, and sorry, that she’s put you in a precarious financial situation. If you two can do this, if you can both apologize for the wrongs you’ve done one another without comparing whose was worse or trying to get revenge, you will be able to rebuild trust and mutual affection over time.
Q. Re: Collection: OP, has your husband kept an accurate inventory of his collection over the years? Does he compare what he paid for a piece to what the “experts” in that type of collection say it’s worth? If he has, then maybe he’s just trying to get back what he originally paid for the pieces he wants to dump. My husband and I are both collectors, and keep very accurate inventories. We know what each piece is “worth.” Are you an expert in what he collects, or are you more concerned that he’s spending money you don’t have in the joint account? If you’re an expert in his collection, then you’d have the right to tell him he’s being lowballed if indeed that’s the case.
A: That’s helpful. Thanks!
Q. Pup-tials: An etiquette question I thought I’d never be asking: Is there an appropriate way to ask if a dog can accompany you to a wedding? A former college roommate of mine is getting married a couple states away from the city I will (temporarily) be in this summer. Because I’m only going to be in the area for two months—I’m just working an internship before returning to grad school elsewhere—I won’t exactly have my usual support network to watch my dog when I run out of town for two or three days to my friend’s wedding. Since the event’s in a rural area, I’m also planning on driving anyway … so I’m wondering how gauche it would be to just throw Fido in the car with me.
I wouldn’t ask at all, normally, but it is unimaginable that this particular friend will throw a wedding that could be described as anything near “traditional”—her family’s more the woods-dwelling, Wiccan hippie type. I can’t 100 percent tell from the invite, but I’m betting a lot of this will be outdoors. My dog’s a total sweetheart and doesn’t bark. Would it be horrible to ask if the pooch can come with me, and if not, how on earth do I pose that question?
A: It would have to be a pretty relaxed wedding, I would think, for guests to be permitted to bring their pets, and since your friend did not specify that pets are welcome on the invitation, I don’t think it would be appropriate to ask. You have until this summer to find someone to look after your dog for two or three days; even if your usual support group is unavailable, that’s plenty of time to find a friend of a friend you can trust.
Q. Al-Anon and drug addiction: Dear Prudence, I love your column. Nar-Anon is a great program. Unfortunately, in some areas it can be difficult to find a convenient meeting that fits into one’s schedule. Often, there are more Al-Anon meetings available. There are many people like me who go to Al-Anon because someone they are close to has a drug addiction problem. From my observation, most people who come to Al-Anon because of a child or grandchild are more likely to mention a drug problem than an alcohol problem. The bottom line is that alcohol is just another drug and alcoholism is just another addiction. Both programs can help people set boundaries with the addicts in their lives and the well-meaning folks who seem determined to tell them how to fix the addiction problem.
A: Thanks for the suggestion! If you live in an area where there are no (or comparatively few) Nar-Anon meetings, you might also consider starting one yourself. Bear in mind that each Al-Anon group may have different opinions on members who are not dealing with an alcoholic, since there is no central governing body that dictates how each meeting handles individual cases. If you’re not sure, call your local Al-Anon central office and ask if it would be all right to attend a meeting if your loved one struggles with drug addiction rather than drinking (although drug addiction and alcoholism are often comorbid). You can always start by attending an “open” meeting (meeting guides list which meetings are “open” versus “closed”), speak to the secretary before or afterward, and go from there.
Q. Do I contact him—again?: I dated this guy. We were more FWB than anything else. I caught feelings for him. Sometimes they felt mutual. We ended things rather badly. He was violent once but seemed to be remorseful in messages to me months after. I expressed my concerns even though I really missed him. Then he broke in to my place and destroyed some personal property. We spent months in court. He basically walked free. I still stupidly think about him, hoping he would come without the violent tendencies. About a month ago, I sent him a message by catfishing him. He suspected it was me, and I stopped replying. Then just last week we were both at a place we frequented often at the same time. Rare, since it’s at least an hour away from where we reside. I know he saw me as he flashed his lights as I rode by. Later on, he had no choice but to pass me as I was in the bike lane. I still for whatever reason miss him. We used to have a lot of fun together, but he cannot be trusted. I admit I did a lot of dishonest things to get to know his real story—which is complicated, but I know they are really only together for their young kid. Did I mention she testified to help him get off on the charges? I guess what I am asking, do I send him a truthful message baring all and see where it goes? I see he is on the dating sites, without a profile pic, I am on, and we’re effectively looking for the same thing. What should I do?
A: No. No. No. Do not contact him now, do not contact him ever. If you ever feel tempted to contact him, call a friend you can trust, a doctor, a therapist, and a family member to ask for help first. This was an unbelievably destructive and unhealthy relationship from start to finish. When you miss him, when you desire to re-establish contact, it’s not because the two of you have a solid, loving connection—your brain misses the chemical thrill. Treat it like you would any other self-destructive craving and ask for help and support in staying sober. You have nothing to say to this man, and he has nothing to say to you. Take care of yourself, and stay away.
Mallory Ortberg: Hope problems are all thin on the ground until next week. Thanks for chatting!