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: Good morning, chatters! Let us endeavor today to be, like Bluebeard’s last wife, “bold, be bold, but not too bold.”
Q. Job woes: I have a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard and am currently working at a community college. I love my students and feel like I’m really making a difference in their lives. I’m in a smaller city and love the opportunities I have given the size (e.g., I’m not a millionaire and I’m still on the board of directors for the symphony). Sounds perfect, right? The problem is, my salary is very low compared to what I could be making in a more technical job. I could easily double my salary ($60K to $120K) if I moved to a bigger city and worked in something like software testing. I would love that kind of job and I would excel at it and I would make twice as much money! The cost of living would be higher but not that much higher. I could have more money to donate to causes that I’m passionate about. At the same time, I wouldn’t be making a real difference. Sure, I would be doing a job well, but I wouldn’t be contributing to society in the same way I feel I am now. To see a student, whose parents are migrant farm workers, going to graduate school in my subject because I was able to share my passion for science and education—that’s making a difference! But I’m tired of being poor (relatively speaking). I bring home $1,700 every two weeks. Not peanuts but not a lot either. Do I stay or do I go? How do I even begin to decide?
A: I’m not inclined to consider a $60,000-a-year salary anywhere close to poor (for what it’s worth, the federal poverty level for a single person is somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000 a year), but there are endless variables you may be experiencing based on your background and level of debt that might make $60,000 feel like a lot less. Take this with a grain of salt, but some research suggests that there’s a threshold to how much happier more money can make a person and that it’s somewhere around $75,000 a year—after that, you’re potentially looking at diminishing returns.
You say you would love to work in software testing, which puts you in a strong position. You’re not contemplating taking on a job you hate just to make more money, and you’re not currently in desperate need of more money because you’re facing the loss of your home or your car. You have two pretty good choices on either side, and nothing is forcing your hand. You’ve got a degree from a pretty prestigious place; consider that this may not be an either/or proposition. What if you took a few years to work in software testing, see how you feel about it, and discover whether or not the higher salary makes as big a difference as you thought it would? If it feels a bit empty, you might consider returning to the community college and taking up the work you loved again.
Q. Lesbian or bisexual?: I’m a guy, and there’s a woman I want to ask out. However, she has dated women in the past, and I don’t know whether she’s bisexual or just a lesbian. Is there a good way to ask her that? Would you be offended if a guy asked you that question point-blank?
A: “I’m not sure if you date men as well as women, but if you do, I’d love to go out sometime. Would you like to go out for a drink this week?” As long as you’re polite and make it clear you’ll back off if she’s not interested, there’s nothing offensive about asking someone you know out on a date—that’s how most dates happen, after all.
Q. Please get out of my space!: So my partner and I have been in a rough patch for a while now. She is moving out for a month to get some space and figure out what she wants. I’m sad because I love her and when things are good, it’s the best feeling to come home to her. But I’m relieved because things are tense right now. I feel she doesn’t respect my boundaries. Her friend is over a lot. I’ve asked for a heads up, and at some points have said I’m not comfortable with her being sprung on me and sticking around late into the night when I have work the next day. But it keeps happening. Last night, I was exhausted and had been asking for some quality time with partner. But her friend came over instead. I ended up going for a walk in the cold and crying on a bench for an hour because I tried to say “no” to my partner, and she told me that she didn’t have a choice. I had a panic attack (I feel so silly, I shouldn’t be so sensitive), but I just felt so unimportant. Partner is so nice to them and wants to tell them every little detail, and in turn listens. Partner told me I was just being critical last night when I tried to explain why this is important to me, and that if I just told her about my day instead of being upset, there wouldn’t be an issue. But I want a say on who is in my/our space! I am mad! But I also feel like I am overreacting because we’ve both been pretty stressed. Is there a way I can/should stand up for myself around this? I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I really want her to get this and pay attention to my needs.
A: I believe your partner did, and does, have a choice over whether or not her friend comes over and stays late into the night. “I didn’t have a choice” applies to, like, Bruce Willis staying behind to blow up the asteroid himself because otherwise the whole Earth will be destroyed in Armageddon, not in hosting a guest. You don’t say this friend is experiencing housing insecurity or in critical need of support at present, which suggests these are social visits that could just easily take place outside your home or be postponed; even if these visits were spurred by some sort of crisis, it would not be OK for your partner to have them around without giving you advance notice, especially once you’d made it clear you wanted at least periodic intervals where it’s just the two of you in the house.
The fact that the last time you tried to set a boundary in your own home and your partner said that she (and by extension, you) did not have a choice is pretty worrying. If nothing else, don’t judge your own feelings as “silly” or convince yourself that you should not be bothered by this—it’s a pretty important boundary that your partner has repeatedly disregarded, and I think it’s wise to take a month apart and live separately. Use that time to think about what you want from a relationship, and a partner, and whether or not you think anything is likely to change. It’s especially troubling that your partner explicitly told you that if you weren’t upset, the two of you would not have a problem: Your partner thinks the problem is not that you aren’t being listened to or respected, your partner thinks the problem is that you’re having feelings, which is a profoundly unhealthy approach to conflict. It may be that while you miss the good times you two have had together, you will find yourself experiencing a new sense of freedom and peace in the month you live apart. That would be worth paying attention to.
Q. Picking up the check: I’m in my early 20s and living at home with my mom in a very expensive area while I wait for medical school. I’ve got a minimum wage job and don’t pay rent but do help out around the house and cook almost all of our meals. She also pays for my gas. My mom has never given me reason to suspect she doesn’t like our arrangement, and insists on certain parts of it (like the gas), but I wonder if I should insist on picking up the check when we go out? I try frequently but don’t insist because “No, no, let me” seems like a hollow gesture when it almost feels like I’d be using her money, since I don’t pay rent and she’s covering my gas! Med school will lead to a secure high-paying job, at which point I will most definitely insist and plan to take care of her in her later years. But should I be insisting more now? If it makes a difference, my mom is an ardently practical woman whose responses to “what do you want for Christmas?” were “for you to do well in school.”
A: This is a lovely letter to get to read. You sound like a pretty thoughtful child, and your mother sounds like a pretty remarkable woman. You’re pulling your weight around the house in nonfinancial ways, and I think it’s wisest for you to continue to save your money now until you’ve gotten one of those “secure high-paying jobs” you’ve got your eye on. If you’re offering, and your mother is continually saying “No,” don’t feel obligated to insist, especially when you’re not currently in a position to be able to do so regularly. If you’re looking for other ways to let her know you’re grateful for all of her support, consider getting her flowers or writing her a letter thanking her for all she’s done.
Q. Ignored anniversary: My husband and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. My mother, best friend, and our best man and his wife all congratulated us. My feelings are very hurt because my husband’s mother did not acknowledge it, nor any of my siblings! I want to say something but feel like I’ll sound like a big baby. Or worse, then one of them sends a card or a gift because of my whining! What do you think?
A: I think this is a situation that calls for asking for what you want, no more, no less. The next time you’re speaking to your siblings or your mother-in-law, say, “We just celebrated our 25th anniversary, and I’m so excited—it’s such a milestone, and I’m so grateful for everything Husband has been to me in our marriage. I just wanted to call you and tell you, because it’s brought me so much joy.” If your mother-in-law and siblings are normally lovely people who care about your marriage with your husband, don’t hold this against them; just let them know your wedding anniversary recently took place and that you were happy to celebrate it, and let them take your cue.
Q. Re: Job woes: “I would love that kind of job and I would excel at it and I would make twice as much money!”
Then DO this! Take hold of your financial future and the opportunities it would provide you! You can always make a difference with volunteering, charitable contributions—there are a myriad of ways available to you in terms of giving back! Now, if you had said, “I’m ho-hum about the field” or indicated a lackluster desire to do the work, then I would not offer this. But you apparently want to do this type of work and you have reason to believe you would be better paid. Do it! Go for it!
A: One strong vote for trying something new!
Q. RSVP from uninvited guest: We let our daughter choose six friends to invite to her upcoming 6th birthday party at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. I used an online invitation that shows everyone the guest list so that it is clear the whole class was not invited. Nonetheless, one of the invitee’s moms just RSVP’d by email for her child and two others, one of whom is also in their class but was not invited. If it were a party at my house or a park, there would be no issue, but my daughter carefully curated her limited guest list, and the uninvited guest is a boy my daughter doesn’t play with because he’s “too wild.” Is it OK to tell this mom that Wild Billy isn’t invited or is the gracious thing to do just reply, “Great, so glad you all can make it”? If the latter, how do I explain to my daughter why Billy will be there even though she had to not invite other kids in her class who she likes to play with more?
A: You made a reservation at a pottery studio, so I think it’s fine to say, “Grennifer, I’m so glad you can make it, but the studio can’t accommodate anyone who who was not on the additional guest list, and we’re keeping the party just to six children, so please don’t invite anyone else.”
Q. Opposite of hoarding?: You field a lot of questions about hoarding behavior. Is there such a thing as the opposite of a hoarder? I’ve been dating a guy for a few weeks, he has seemed great and without obvious quirks … outside of his house. He lives alone in a big house that is very empty. There are several totally empty closets and bare shelves. There is not a photo or picture to be seen. He takes mail from his mailbox directly to the trash bins outside and sorts it there. I broached the oddness of this gently, and he just says “clutter stresses me out” and that he feels more relaxed when he knows he has plenty of empty space. Does this strike you as pathological? A red flag? My apartment has about-average clutter and he’s never seemed unnerved or bothered by it, for what that is worth.
A: It does not strike me as pathological; there was a best-selling book just a few years ago about how wonderful it is to get rid of most of your possessions, and the minimalist aesthetic is always coming back in fashion. It’s unusual, maybe (although not terribly unusual for a guy living alone), but if everything else about him is great, that’s probably because he’s actually great.
Q. Current partner is not my ex: I had my first serious relationship last year—we moved really fast and ultimately our relationship sort of imploded. I was going through a rough patch due to side effects from some medication and rather than support me, he basically walked away (but said he was doing it for my sake). Now, I am in a new relationship with an amazing guy who is supportive and caring and just overall a much better match for me. But sometimes he does things that remind me of stuff that happened with my ex, and I freak out and get super insecure about being dumped. For example, he noticed I was feeling moody and asked about it. Even though he then tried to cheer me up and was a generally good partner, it made me flash back to when my ex noticed I was feeling moody and basically wanted to dump me because of that. Or my ex made me tons of empty promises, so when my current partner told me he was getting me something but had to delay giving it to me—I just assumed it’ll never happen. So even though my current partner is actually doing the right things, I still have these insecurities and I worry they will eventually ruin my relationship. How do I make sure my old experiences don’t ruin my current one? I’ve talked to my current partner somewhat about having insecurities but don’t necessarily mention it every time something like this happens.
A: If you’re at a point where simply hearing your partner ask if you’re feeling OK (assuming it was something like “You seem upset; is everything OK?” and not “What’s wrong with you?”) flash back to the last time you got dumped, then I think you owe it to yourself to see a therapist. Your instinct to mention these fears to your partner but not to bring them up every time they surface is, I think, a good one—he should know what’s going on with you but it’s also not incumbent on him to reassure you every time you experience an irrational fear. Both you and your new partner deserve to separate this relationship from your last one, and you should get help with these deep-seated insecurities from someone who isn’t your boyfriend. You shouldn’t have to go through this relationship panicked and insecure that you’re about to get dumped—which you might, by the way! It is always possible that a relationship will end, but you should not be frozen or overwhelmed by that possibility.
Q. Re: Job woes: Unless you have experience in software testing, just having a Ph.D. in chemistry (even if it IS from Harvard) won’t necessarily get you the high-paying job you seem to be certain you’d walk right into. Plus, a big job in a big city also attracts lots of applicants. You’ve created an ideal scenario that, unfortunately, probably won’t match your reality for several years. You might be better trying to get a long-distance, part-time coding job on the side now to build that resume.
A: One strong vote for looking before you leap!
Q. Re: Job woes: I am a practicing attorney with a demanding day job. For many years, I also taught business law one night a week at a local community college. It was a very rewarding experience that ended only due to budget constraints on the part of the college. Hopefully, the letter writer can find a similar arrangement allowing him/her to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Q. Re: Job woes: Like the letter writer, I also have a Ph.D. in science from a prestigious university and teach at the college level. I’d like to point out that there is another option here: The LW could move up in the field of science education. Community college salaries are on the low end of the pay scale for college lecturers. If the LW applied for full-time teaching positions at four-year colleges, they stand to make a little more than they currently make at the community college while remaining in the same line of work. There are also numerous administrative positions that are often filled by science Ph.D.s. I don’t know how much experience the LW has under their belt, but college administrators generally make significantly more money than college lecturers while still contributing to the growth and education of students.
A: A reminder that this may not be an either/or proposition. Thanks for all the additional advice!