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 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. Workplace conundrum: I am a 27-year-old woman in a male-dominated workplace (scientific field, very competitive). Last year, I was moved onto a project with a lot more responsibility. I asked if this change of role would come with more money, and my boss assured me that I would get a raise starting in January. He asserted this repeatedly, but I stupidly didn’t get it in writing. When January came around, he had done nothing to set up the raise. He said that he had made a mistake, and paying me more would not be possible, but I could compete for a higher-level position in 2018. I documented what happened and (after being encouraged by my supervisor) requested a meeting with my boss and HR. In the meeting, my boss attacked my qualifications and said I was “impatient” and “demanding.” The HR rep stayed silent. I felt like I was being punished for following up on a commitment he chose to make. He said that if I didn’t like working here, I could leave and go back to my old project. Prudence, I had to gather the courage to follow up on this in the first place, being young and one of the only women in our group. On a good day, I get harassed by my male colleagues, who say I was hired for my appearance and other demeaning things. I stick it out because this work is important to me, and I want to be able to compete in this field. I don’t think I did anything wrong and am now wondering if I should stay in this environment. Should I quit?
A: Absolutely. Your boss has made promises he can’t keep, and instead of acknowledging he made a mistake in offering you a raise that the company couldn’t afford when you pushed for clarification, he called your professionalism into question and called you “demanding” for asking about something you had been promised. He’s also made it clear that he’s willing to demote you, HR has been no help, and you’re regularly harassed about your appearance and capabilities. Consider documenting the instances where your colleagues say you were hired for your looks rather than your abilities, if you ever decide to file a formal complaint about a hostile work environment. But you don’t owe this company any more of your time, and you should find another job where you’ll be valued rather than demeaned.
Q. Hate the house rules: What are your thoughts on people who have “house rules” for commonly played board or card games? My in-laws have some for Gin Rummy that are terribly irritating, and people all seem to have their own rules for Monopoly. Am I allowed to insist on the real rules being played at my own house? I hate to be a stickler, but who just makes up rules for board games?
A: All rules for board games are made up. All games were, at some point, made up; there is no natural, immutable way to play Gin Rummy. The original rules of Monopoly only exist because someone in the early 1900s wanted to explain the tax theories of Henry George via a board game; there is no objective version of Monopoly. Moreover, the worst sort of argument one can have with relatives is one where the stakes are low but the sense of grievance is high. You will likely never convince your in-laws that their game rules are irritating, no matter how passionately you argue your case. Cheerfully embrace your in-laws’ ridiculous house rules (or politely decline to play and read a book instead), and feel free to make up your own rules at home, although if you find yourself at a point where every time you play a game you have to insist that everyone else follow “the real rules,” you might want to do something besides play board games with your guests. (There are no real rules. There are no real games, only endless variations on an arbitrary theme. Embrace chaos.)
Q. Weird neighbor?: Is it weird that my fiftysomething male neighbor finds it OK to ask my 4-year-old son for kisses when he sees us in the front yard? For reference we live in the street I grew up on, and he’s only been here for two years. My son is friendly, but I don’t like him kissing near-strangers who conveniently find themselves outside when I’m busy talking with others I have known a long time, and my son is playing with his cars by the letterbox? He has a wife and teenage daughter I’ve never spoken to, only wave out of politeness. I’ve never kissed a child if I wasn’t close to the whole family. It has happened twice now. Who’s the weird one? Me or him?
A: He might be weird, or he might be friendly, but the good news is that you don’t have to let anyone kiss your 4-year-old son if it makes you feel uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you have to treat him like a predator, but you absolutely can say, “Please don’t kiss my son” to anyone you like.
Q. I don’t want to be torn between the two: My fiancé and I live together, and he is very kind and loving and goes out of his way to help people. I had always thought he was as good as it gets until a couple of years ago. I had a visit from my parents, and I was excited for them to meet my “perfect” fiancé. I am very close with my parents, and I was thrilled to see them after years. We live continents apart. Right when they arrived, I noticed that my fiancé was on edge all the time: He would snap at my father and roll his eyes; he even came home drunk once (he is not a big drinker). I was shocked to see this side of my fiancé that I have never seen before. I had to literally beg for him to treat them as he treats other people. After they left, my fiancé went back to his old self, like nothing had happened. Now their second visit is coming up, and I was hoping you could advise me on how to talk to my fiancé. I love my parents, and I love my fiancé and love having both of them in my life, but this time I can’t sit and watch while he mistreats my parents. I am still beating myself up for not voicing my disappointment the first time around.
A: Don’t waste any more time beating yourself up for not bringing your concerns up sooner, but do bring them up to him immediately. It’s not “too late” to discuss something that’s bothering you just because you wish you’d done so earlier. “Last time my parents visited, you acted in a way that seemed really out of character for you. As far as I could tell, my parents were polite to you, but you were rude to them, rolled your eyes when they spoke, and came home drunk, which I rarely see you do. Afterward, you acted like nothing had happened, and I made the mistake of not bringing it up, but I want to talk about it now, before my parents visit again. Can you tell me what’s going on? Is there something about my parents that we need to talk about?”
Whatever his reasons (and he may get defensive at first), don’t ignore his rudeness this time around. If he snaps at your father or rolls his eyes again, pull him aside and tell him that he needs to be civil. It may be that this talk will clear the air, that he regrets his behavior during their last visit, and that he’s willing to start again, but you’ll only be able to move ahead if you have that conversation right away.
Q. Post-friendship guilt: Last year I ended a long friendship. My friend was chronically ill and on a transplant waiting list. She also had a physically abusive husband and an enormous amount of debt. As her health failed, she lost her job because she was unable to fulfill her duties. Over the last year of our friendship, I took her to doctor’s appointments and to the emergency room; I bought her groceries and made her meals so her children would have something to eat. I took her to divorce lawyers and found her resources to help her leave (I even offered for her and her children to live in a rental property of mine for free). The problem was that she would ultimately refuse help that wasn’t financial and would berate me daily for things I had no control over (like money not transferring fast enough to keep their lights on or blaming me when her neighbors called the cops after her husband beat her). DHS was already involved with her family. It got to the point where I told her that I could not help her anymore unless she made steps to help herself because there was nothing more I could do. I was so stressed out that my hair was falling out—I lost a lot of weight, and my blood pressure was out of control. We haven’t spoken since. I got word that she got her transplant and she left her husband. Prudie, I feel awful for leaving my friend in her time of need, and realistically I know she wasn’t acting like herself. I feel awful for feeling like a weight had been lifted. Am I a horrible person? Did I do the wrong thing? Do I try to reach out again?
A: You are not a horrible person; you and your friend were both in a horrible situation, and you did the best you possibly could. You did not leave your friend in her time of need. You told her, very clearly, what you could do and what you could not do. She did not fall apart when you stopped allowing her to berate and control you. On the contrary, once you set a firm limit, she seemed to thrive, and she is now physically healthy and separated from her abusive husband, which is exactly what you hoped for her. You can wish her well in her continued recovery and also know that the best thing for both of you is to continue your lives separately. She does not need you in order to be well, and you cannot help anyone by letting her take out all her frustration and anger on you. You recognized that when you took a step back from her life, and you should do your best to remember that now. You did the right thing, and both of you are doing better as a result.
Q. Old mementos: When I was in middle school, I kept a journal of my day-to-day activities and continued to do so throughout high school. It was a great writing exercise for me at the time and now serves as a great way to look back at those times in my life and see what I was up to. During those times, my friends and I would often print out pictures of boys we had crushes on from MySpace (which was the big thing at the time!). I had pasted those pictures in my journals. My question is: Is it weird to keep those pictures now as an adult? I feel like the guys in question would be weirded out if they knew I had pictures from their school days saved in my old journals that I printed off their MySpace pages—but I don’t want to get rid of them, either! I have fond memories of those days. What’s your opinion?
A: It’s no weirder than keeping a yearbook. You’re not pulling up these guys’ old profiles on the Wayback Machine and printing them out now; you shouldn’t feel guilty about a handful of pictures from your high school journal.
Q. Sexless marriage woes: My wife and I have been married 16 years and have two kids. Our sex life had been declining for a while. Where we once had matching libidos, she’d gotten to where she was rejecting my advances most of the time, and we were only doing it every couple of months. About a year ago I talked to her about it (outside the bedroom) thinking we’d work on it and improve that part of our marriage. Instead she told me she was done having sex. She even brought up the idea of a sexual surrogate, which I wasn’t interested in. After that we’ve tried to do it twice, but she was so obviously not into it that I gave up trying. I don’t want a divorce. I’m thinking I might be interested in the “sexual surrogate” idea but wouldn’t know how to go about it. I really wasn’t into casual sex before we married, but I also don’t want to be chaste for the rest of my life. I’m only in my 40s. Help?
A: You have been given the gift of clarity, at least, although I imagine it doesn’t feel like much of a gift right now, especially since what you were hoping for was a renewed, satisfying sex life with the woman you married. Your wife is not interested in having sex with you again, and you’re not interested in getting a divorce or in joining her in celibacy, which leaves you with the prospect of developing a new kind of sex life without your wife’s participation. Sexual surrogacy is a fairly specific job description—if you’re referring to the sort of trained professional who works in conjunction with a therapist and adheres to a specific set of conduct rules, your best bet is the International Professional Surrogates Association, although you should bear in mind that there are not many professional sex surrogates working in the United States. If your wife meant simply that she wants you to find a sexual replacement, then you’ll have to figure out what it is that you’re looking for—a girlfriend, a friend with benefits, a fling? If you’re not into casual sex, you may be looking for one or more long-term partners who are comfortable with the fact that you’re in an open marriage, and that may be difficult to find. Be honest about what you’re looking for and what you’re offering, and good luck!
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for today—see you next week!