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: Welcome back, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. He cheated, but my behavior was worse: I’ve been with my boyfriend for over 10 years. We have a great relationship with normal ups and downs over the years. I’ve recently suspected he might be cheating, but after searching his phone (I know, I’m sorry), I couldn’t find any evidence. I confronted him with it and he denied it. Well, after coming home from an annual OB-GYN appointment, I cried to him that I was diagnosed with herpes. I was so upset and again brought up his potential cheating, as it’s the only way I could have gotten an STD. He broke down, admitted to an infidelity, and was devastated he gave it to me. We’ve done some real work and are back on track. But: I made it all up. I was never diagnosed but thought the lie would get him to confess. It did! And I feel awful. Am I a monster? I feel my transgression was almost worse than his. How do I move on?
A: I have so many questions about this! (Chief among them is why, if you were trying to force your boyfriend to admit he’d cheated on you, you chose to fake having one of the most common STDs imaginable, one that roughly 1 in 6 Americans have, and that you could easily have contracted—but not noticed—before you met him. Also, if your boyfriend had gone and gotten tested immediately after you “revealed” you had herpes and found that he didn’t have the virus, you could have been almost immediately found out.) Regardless, you two have not, in fact, done “some real work” and are nowhere near “back on track,” because he doesn’t know that you are willing to pretend to have an STD in order to get what you want out of him. There is a complete and total breakdown of trust in your relationship, and you two do not belong together. There is no healthy, sustainable love story that includes “I knew he was cheating, but he wouldn’t admit it, so after going through his phone, I falsified medical information to get him to confess and now everything’s great.”
What you could, and should, have done when you became convinced he was cheating, even if he was not willing to admit it, was end the relationship. If you no longer trust your partner and believe they are lying to you, you do not need evidence to break up with them. You could simply have said, “I no longer trust you, and I don’t believe you when you say you’re being faithful; if I can’t trust you, then we can’t be together,” and walked away from this relationship with your head held high. As it is, you’re going to have to tell him. The reason you feel awful is because you have done something awful. This does not make you a monster; such dramatics are unhelpful to you at present. Beating yourself up as a “monster” would, in fact, act as a sort of guilt release valve—as long as you beat yourself up as a terrible person periodically, you won’t feel the need to confess because you’re already being “punished.” Your transgression was neither “worse” nor “better” than his—it stands on its own, and nothing he did could either aggravate or ameliorate what you did. You need to own up to it, to apologize, to face the consequences of your actions, and to figure out what you need to do to ensure you don’t treat future partners in the same way.
Q. Is he just into my cat?: I’ve known a guy as a friend for a few years, and we see each other every few months and catch up. I recently found myself single at the same time he was and I thought he might be interested in me. We’ve both began communicating with each other more than usual. However, it’s always about our cats. We make plans to do things where there will be cats, visit with each other’s cats, message each other cat memes and updates about our cats, and even plan “cat dates” for our cats to hang. My friends say no one talks about their cat that much but I honestly think he’s just into my cat. What do you think?
A: It sounds like this guy is definitely into your cat and, at the very least, considers you a good cat owner. If you would like to go on a date with him, you should feel free to ask him if he wants to have dinner with you—catless—sometime, but I do not think he has been creating a series of elaborate cat-related fictions in order to spend time with you. I think he really likes talking about cats. He may also like you, but that remains to be seen.
Q. Canceled cake order: I am a home baker who does it mostly for fun—it’s not my main source of income. I was asked by my hairdresser to make her wedding cake (she’s marrying another woman), and I was VERY excited to do that as I am a firm believer in marriage equality. I’d made her 50th birthday cake and her fiancée’s 50th birthday cake. I had them over to taste cakes—they wanted sugar-free, gluten-free, and a regular cake. I gave them a few options, saying several times, “I want you to have whatever you want, it’s your wedding.” They then decided they were going to “go with something less complicated,” and “are really stressed out with their families,” and are going to buy an ice cream cake there or go with the restaurant’s desserts. (They are telling the restaurant it’s just a party and not a wedding so they don’t get charged “wedding” rates.) I am really heartbroken. I spent a lot of time and energy and money buying a special candy mold and gluten-free flour, etc. I have been going to her for over 10 years, spending well over $100 every four weeks. My question is, do I have to “process” with her and tell her she hurt my feelings? Or can I just go somewhere “less complicated” for my hair styling from now on? I hate processing, and I actually don’t want to stress her out more about her wedding. Thank you for your thoughts!
A: You do not have to tell your hairdresser anything if you’d rather just quietly find someone else. You might start asking clients for a small deposit in the future, though; just because this work is mostly-for-fun doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for some consideration for your time and labor.
Q. Scripting a breakup: One of the most valuable things I get from your column is potential “scripts” for hard or uncomfortable conversations. With that in mind: My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost two years. For some, that might be “just waiting for the ring” territory, but we have never had conversations about moving in or marriage. I love my boyfriend, but we have reached a plateau, and it’s clear to me that this is not going to be a forever relationship. There is no way to not hurt his feelings—this is clearly going to be rough for everyone. How do I start this conversation, and how much emotional support do I try to offer, given that I have had time to brace myself and he has not?
A: You can be kind, but you should not be offering your boyfriend emotional support while you are breaking up with him. By virtue of breaking up with him, you have rendered yourself uniquely incapable of being emotionally supportive while he goes through the process of getting dumped. He can reach out to anyone in his life who isn’t you for support, but it’s your job to make the break clean and give him space to move on. If you’re completely sure it’s time to end things, I think it’s best to start with the truth, rather than vamping for a few minutes about how great he is and how hard this has been for you. That can come later; don’t make him wonder what you’re trying to talk to him about.
Start by telling your boyfriend that you want to break up, that you love him and that this relationship has meant a lot to you, but that you don’t see yourself together in the long run and you’re ready to move on. You’re right that you’ve had more time to prepare for this than he has, but that’s the nature of being dumped—he’ll get to do all of his thinking and feeling about your breakup after the relationship ends, while you got to do it in advance. If he wants to have a slightly longer conversation about why you don’t see the two of you together in the long run, and you feel comfortable sharing some of your reasons, you might go into greater detail, but don’t feel that you have to convince him you’re making the right decision or get him to see things from your point of view. Just be kind, be clear, and then give him space.
Q. Why don’t I feel happy about BIL’s new love?: My husband’s terrific brother, “Dave,” cherished his wife, “Connie,” and nursed her loyally through the cancer battle that claimed her life last year. Connie was the sister I never had—warm, funny, and full of unconditional love—and her death was very tough on me (though not as tough as it was on Dave). He waded back into the dating pool a few months ago and has come up with an absolute winner of a woman. Which is why I am shocked at how hard I have to fake being happy about this. Why am I suppressing feelings of depression and disappointment? I know Dave is entitled to happiness, and his life is none of my business, so why do I feel hurt? I’m doing my very best to show nothing but loving kindness to this lady, and I don’t want to screw up his new relationship by showing coldness to her by accident. What the hell is the matter with me?
A: I don’t believe anything is the matter with you. Your response seems completely normal and understandable to me. You loved Connie as your own sister, and you miss her terribly, and seeing Dave with someone else—not just a casual fling, but another wonderful woman you can see him with in the long run—reminds you of what you’ve lost. You’re perfectly aware that Dave is not doing anything wrong by finding love again, and you’re also trying your hardest to welcome his new girlfriend, which tells me you have a solid grip on reality and a profound desire to do the right thing.
The fact that you’re depressed and disappointed by this turn of events doesn’t mean that you secretly want Dave to be unhappy. It means you’re still grieving and that your grieving process looks different than his. You’re doing everything right, and the only advice I’ll give you is to stop thinking of these negative feelings as a problem to be fixed. I hope you have someone outside of your family you can share them with, someone who’s not immediately affected by Connie’s death, just so they don’t feel like a burdensome secret. Continue to treat Dave’s new girlfriend with loving kindness as you have been. Bear in mind, too, that it is OK to occasionally discuss how much you love and miss Connie when you’re around Dave; embracing his new girlfriend doesn’t mean you have to stop talking about her.
Q. Re: Canceled cake order: I do artwork as a side business for myself (I’d love for it to be full-time but alas I still need a day job at the moment to cover bills) and I’m in agreeance with Prudie on this: doesn’t matter how frequently you do this or if it’s a “mostly for fun thing,” you should always protect yourself by asking for a deposit. I usually ask for half upfront and half on delivery of the final product. That is more than fair and makes sure that both client and service provider have about equal skin in the game to see things through.
If you have to get special equipment/molds/materials etc. for a job, I’d say figure up the cost of what those things will entail and at the very least ask for that much upfront, that way you’re not stuck footing the bill for equipment you may not particularly need or want outside of that one specific job. Be clear about this policy with future clients and be firm. If they don’t have the money to put upfront, then they can’t afford your services.
Q. Walking-home woes: I’m a college student living in an accommodation block on the outskirts of the university town. My boyfriend lives in another complex about 10 minutes into town (on the largest street). Since we usually hang out in his room after classes because they’re held closer to his place, I have to walk back to my complex by myself, usually past midnight. (His room is too cramped for me to sleep over.) The 10 minutes make a huge difference, because my area is much unsafer, and I’ve had many bad encounters on the street, starting from a couple of months before I started seeing my boyfriend. I’ve told my boyfriend about the incident and hinted it to him, but he still doesn’t have the habit of walking me back. Am I being sexist for wanting him to walk me back, and if not, is there a nondemanding way of asking him to do so?
A: No, it’s not sexist to want not to be harassed when you walk in the street at night, nor is there anything wrong in asking your boyfriend to walk home with you. My main advice to you would be to stop hinting if there is something very specific you want your boyfriend to do. Ask for it outright. Please do this in all of your future romantic relationships. It will save you endless frustration. For this particular issue, just say “I’ve had a lot of unsettling encounters walking back to my apartment late at night, and it makes me feel nervous and unsafe whenever I have to leave your place. Would you please walk me home?” Hopefully he will say yes. If he doesn’t, consider what you might need. Does your college have a safety escort service that helps see students home securely? Do you want to start spending time in your apartment even though they’re a slightly longer walk from campus? Do you want to reconsider your relationship if your boyfriend seems uninterested in the fact that you’re getting harassed on your walk home from his place on a regular basis? Figure out what you want, and ask for it. Nothing that you’re asking for is unreasonable or out of line.
Q. Sweatiquette: At my gym, there is a sign that clearly states you should wipe down equipment with the cleaning fluid provided after you use it. To get the cleaning fluid, you have to walk across the gym and then come back. Often, as I walk over, someone will come and start using, or preparing to use, the machine I just left. Does this absolve me of the responsibility for cleaning it? Should I offer to wipe it down even if the person is already preparing to use it? And, conversely, if I am the second person, should I wait for the original user to wipe down the machine before getting on it? Thanks!
A: It does not absolve you! Offer to wipe it down regardless; only if they refuse are you absolved. (Hopefully, no one would refuse.) As for your second question: If the other person is clearly heading back with the cleaning materials, absolutely wait 20 seconds for them to wipe the machine down. If they seem to have disappeared and you don’t feel like waiting around, feel free to grab a towel and a spray bottle and do it yourself.