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.)
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Q. Runaway friend: Maybe once a month, a group of four to five of my best college girlfriends and significant others will get together and go out to a couple of bars. One of these friends, “Anna,” who is single, has the annoying habit of becoming sulky, then sneaking off without a word to anyone and just never coming back. This happens probably four out of five times we go out. She struggles with depression and doesn’t handle her alcohol particularly well, so I’m fairly sure this stems from the depressant part of the drinking getting to her, and she handles it by leaving. I’m the closest with Anna, so I’ve seen this behavior play out over years, and I’m not particularly sympathetic to it anymore. This combination of circumstances is proving to be problematic: I end up worrying for the rest of the night that she gets home safely because she won’t respond to texts after she’s left; I think it’s downright rude to leave without saying a word; and once others notice she’s gone, I’m always the go-to person for them to ask, “What’s wrong? Is she OK?” and I lose patience with answering and worry it makes me look like a bad friend because I appear unconcerned. Maybe the logical thing to do is to stop inviting her out with us, but she’s very integrated into this group, and often we’re out because we’re celebrating something (birthdays, promotions) and it would seem intentionally mean to leave her out. But I’m so tired of everyone excusing her bad behavior. I understand her needing to go home but think the way she’s going about it is childish and negatively affects the remaining group. What should I do?
A: Talk to Anna about this when you two are together, not drinking, and there are no plans to meet up with other friends for a few drinks on the immediate horizon. This is a regular occurrence that clearly distresses both her and you, and tell her you’re concerned about her well-being and worried that she’s not getting the help and support she needs in treating her depression. If she responds well, you two can have a conversation about trying to schedule more events that don’t revolve around drinking and the possibility that it might be best for her to sit out the events that do, at least for a while.
If she brushes you off or otherwise makes it clear she’s not interested in discussing the situation, then you’ll have to figure out what you need to do in the future. That might mean taking less responsibility for mediating her relationship to the other friends who ask where she’s gone or not texting her for explanations after she’s left. This is not just a once-in-a-while thing but a regular occurrence, and presumably it’s at least as hard on her as it is on you. If you decide not to invite her to a get-together that you know will involve alcohol, bear in mind that you’re not excluding her to be mean, but declining to participate in a situation that causes distress, fear, and anxiety for all of you. Whatever you do, talk to her about it. Don’t ignore this pattern or just stop inviting her out without notice. You can find other ways to spend time with Anna, both one on one and in group settings, that don’t involve setting the stage for repeat disappearances.
Q. Love isn’t sex: I have been with my boyfriend for some time now, and we are happy together—friends frequently refer to us as a perfect couple. It’s true, in that he loves me and I love him and can’t imagine my life without him. But I am not attracted to him sexually. I used to fool myself into thinking I was, but I’ve never felt it. We have sex, and I enjoy it, because it’s intimate, and I am glad to make him happy. But I don’t orgasm or enjoy the act itself, and if he said he never wanted to have sex again, I’d be happy to take care of myself in that department and just cuddle with my boyfriend. I’ve never been tempted to cheat, and he is happy with our sex life. But am I being deceitful by pretending to feel what I don’t? I really am in love with him, but sometimes I think he deserves someone who’s more into him sexually. Is it OK to never tell him, if it keeps us both happy?
A: It isn’t strictly honest, no. If you’re genuinely happy faking enthusiasm during your sexual encounters with him, and can see yourself continuing to do so for the rest of your life, that’s one thing, but if any part of you thinks it’s going to get more and more difficult to keep the act going with the years, I think it’s worth being honest with him now. It sounds like you feel an implicit sense of social pressure from your friends to remain in this “perfect” relationship, and that may be part of what’s keeping you from telling him the truth. If you think he would be pained to learn that your sex life is not in fact mutually enjoyable but merely something you are willing to pretend to like to keep him happy, then you may be right in thinking he deserves someone who is as interested in having sex with him as he is with you. You, too, deserve the space and the freedom to be honest about your sexual desires—whether you ultimately consider yourself to be asexual or something else.
I wonder, however, about this part of your letter: “If he said he never wanted to have sex again, I’d be happy to take care of myself in that department.” If your problem is not a lack of interest in sex but the fact that you have not communicated to your boyfriend what works for you sexually, then I think you may have an easier solution to your problem. If you do not enjoy the act itself qua act, that’s one thing, but if you don’t enjoy the act because your boyfriend doesn’t know how to get you off, then you should tell him, and show him, what you want in bed.
Q. Re: Runaway friend: Does she do that at gatherings when the significant others aren’t there. You do get together with just the best girlfriends, right? Unless there were several other single friends, I think I’d probably duck out early if I was always stuck being the single with couples.
A: That’s worth taking into consideration, although I do think there’s a big difference between “ducking out early” and what Anna is doing. There’s a balance to be struck here between accommodating Anna socially and encouraging her to get help for something that’s clearly distressing her, and I think her friends should pursue both routes.
Q. Re: Runaway friend: If the friend pursues treatment for her depression, there is a chance she might have to take meds. Antidepressants plus bar-hopping equals a big no-no.
A: Thanks for the reminder! Medication may not be something Anna pursues, but if she does, it’s worth remembering it’s not a quick fix, and if part of the problem is her relationship with alcohol, it may have to be addressed separately.
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Q. Transphobic mom: My mother is 80 years old. I visit her weekly to help out, but she has mobility issues, so she rarely sees anyone other than close family. The other day we were watching TV and Caitlyn Jenner came on. My mom expressed some very intolerant and incorrect views about transgender people—that they’re creeps trying to attack girls in bathrooms, that they’re pretending, and that they’re looking for attention. When I tried to correct her, she waved me off. I’m wondering what the correct course is here. Should I continue to try to educate her, even knowing that she’s held these prejudices for 80 years and is one of the most stubborn people on the planet? Or should I let it go, as she is unlikely to ever meet a transgender person in real life and will probably just push back if I attempt to reason with her?
A: I’m generally not of the opinion that prejudiced older folks should be dismissed as being too close to the grave for change, although it’s worth bearing in mind that changes in long-held beliefs will likely be incremental and come slowly rather than overnight, if they come at all. It would be different if your mother’s faculties were limited or if she were no longer able to hold a coherent conversation, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. You did right, I think, in challenging her statements, even if she didn’t change her mind. If such moments come again, consider asking questions that encourage her to check her assumptions: Where has she gotten the idea that girls are being routinely attacked in bathrooms? Why does she think a person would “pretend” to be transgender? What’s wrong with needing attention? You don’t have to turn every visit with your mother into an attempt to change her views, but it’s always worth questioning prejudice when you encounter it, even if you don’t “win.”
Q. Bad birthday: My partner and I recently went on a camping trip to celebrate my birthday. My closest friend, who lives near the destination, joined us for one night. This is the first time I have seen her in months and probably the only time I will see her for another several months, since we recently moved to different cities. Our plans were relatively short-notice, but my partner and I tried to play gracious hosts—we brought extra food to prepare meals for them, brought all the required things to have a fire (including an actual fire pit per park regulations), provided them seating after they didn’t bring any despite being asked to, etc. My friend brought her new husband, and this is where our visit goes sour. He got extremely drunk the night they were there. He unpleasantly monopolized the conversation so that I barely got to catch up with my friend, then got into an upsetting argument with her for the remainder of the evening before throwing a fit and literal trash in our campsite and going to bed. The next day, he guilted my friend into leaving way earlier than planned because he wasn’t feeling well enough to explore. In addition, they both seemed oddly ungrateful and impolite in refusing our hospitality despite the remarkable effort my partner made to be accommodating and gracious toward them. I found the whole thing very upsetting and disappointing, especially because I have known this friend for quite a while (and we’ve camped together before), and she has never behaved like this before. It seems like a situation of her giving in to her new husband’s desires instead of standing up for herself, and I find it very troubling. My question is: How should I react? They posted photos from their trip home, which suggest he wasn’t feeling all that bad after all. I don’t want this to strain my friendship, but my feelings are hurt, and I would like her to leave him at home during our future visits. What is an appropriate way to approach this situation?
A: Talk to her about her husband’s troubling behavior that night and tell her you’re concerned. This will strain your friendship—already has strained your friendship—so keeping your friendship light and conflict-free is not a reasonable goal in this instance. It’s likely that if you ask her to leave her husband at home for future get-togethers she will decline to attend at all, but it’s worth saying that you’re worried about his controlling and violent behavior (throwing a fit and throwing garbage into a campfire certainly qualifies), that you want to make sure she’s OK, and that you’re here if she ever needs you.
Q. Am I the crazy one?: I’ve been with my boyfriend, “S,” for nearly two years. We met fairly soon after he lost his wife to cancer. We dated casually at first and then became exclusive eight months later. Not long after that, we began having arguments—big, crying, cruel, three-day-long arguments that led to him threatening to break up over the slightest things. Every time we had one of these, he put it all on me, saying something was wrong with me and I need help. I have always suffered from mild anxiety and depression but have never experienced the level I have since I met him. But I still sought help and was put on some medication. I have noticed an improvement, yet the arguments continue. The problem is that he becomes angry over some “slight,” such as me suggesting his dogs get groomed. He threw a fit because I dared to tell him what to do with “his” dogs. Recently, we were discussing climate change, and all of a sudden he became angry and said I insulted him, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He just proceeded to berate me and insult me for the next 45 minutes until I was a sobbing mess. I finally had to get off the phone to go to work. He then became angry that I didn’t respond to his 100-plus texts and 15-plus phone calls while I was driving to work and at work. His texts became angrier and angrier until he texted, “F— it, I’m done.” His dog was supposed to go to the vet, and he also stated that I didn’t deserve to care about his dogs or know about the vet appointment or the outcome. Needless to say, I did get mad about that. He then blamed me for not being understanding of his feelings and stress. When I said that I couldn’t be understanding when he’s using my love for the dogs as a weapon, he replied, “You don’t have the brainpower to understand.” I then hung up on him. So my question is this: Am I really the crazy one, or are these signs of emotional abuse? I just cannot understand why he gets so angry and then acts so cruel when he claims to love me.
A: This is abuse. You two do not have “big, crying, cruel, three-day-long arguments” because you have mild anxiety and depression but because your boyfriend is abusive. There is no medication you could take, no alteration you could make in your own behavior, that would change this dynamic, because he is abusive and will look for any excuse to explode at you. You could not possibly walk on enough eggshells to keep him from doing this again. The reason you cannot understand his behavior is because you are not an abusive person, and the reason he acts so cruelly when he claims to love you is because he is an abuser who wants to control and humiliate and isolate you, and I am so sorry that he has led you to believe that he blows up at you through some fault of yours that you should be working harder to correct. If there are people in your life you can talk to about this right now, please tell them what you’ve told me and enlist their support in getting out of this relationship, because things will not get better, and he will not change.
Q. My roommate is Peggy Hill: What’s the etiquette for asking to move furniture in a shared living space? My roommate is the sort of person who thinks he is the expert on everything and constantly interrupts and explains things that are not pertinent or things I already know. He has had multiple jobs since we’ve moved in, and he’s always complained about being the most competent person at his workplace. That’s not the problem. Part of sharing a home is putting up with irritating habits. The problem is that he is very possessive of our apartment. He has taken the larger bedroom for himself (my boyfriend and I share a room half the size even though we all pay the same rent), and he purchases large pieces of furniture, rearranges them, and decorates them every few weeks. Recently, several items he has set up and installed have come crashing down. One item was a heavy shelf. When I looked at the wall afterward, I saw that this was because he had used naked wood screws (!) to hold it up. I specifically remember telling him to use anchors when installing in the drywall, but he said he “knew what he was doing.” There are currently five enormously heavy shelves above the guest bed. They are hefty enough to kill a person. My sister is coming to visit soon, and I know that the likelihood of them falling the exact moment she is on the bed is improbable, but it’s stressing me out. I would like to be able to just move the bed to the other side of the room, but since he’s so possessive, he wouldn’t like it if I did it without explanation, but if I explained why, he’d take that personally as well. Should I explain it to him and let him be huffy with me? Should I just psychically will the shelves to stay up while my sister is here? Is there a possible solution I’m overlooking? There are no wrong answers.
A: There is definitely one wrong answer, and that’s to let your sister sleep directly under five heavy shelves that, if precedent is any indication, are about to collapse on her head. (It’s part of how we lost Teena Marie!) Say to your roommate, “Since a number of your DIY projects have collapsed, I’m moving the bed to the other side of the room for my sister’s visit.” This is a simple recitation of facts. If your roommate would like to get upset about reality, he is of course free to do so. This may fall outside of the category of “acceptable-yet-irritating roommate behavior.” Living with someone who’s incompetent and defensive when it comes to building furniture (especially heavy furniture that looms over your heads) sounds like a headache you don’t need.
Q. Traveling blues: For the past 2.5 years I and a few other people have been planning a trip to Ireland. I have been saving diligently, taking on two part-time jobs in addition to my full-time job to afford the trip. From the start I’ve told my boyfriend that I would love for him to come along but that he would have to pay for himself, as there is no way I can afford to pay for us both. For the past two years he has been largely dismissive and showed no interest in coming. Now I’m at the stage of booking flights and hotels and suddenly he really wants to go but can’t afford to and says I should either lend him the money or postpone my trip until he can afford to go. I told him I would send him a postcard from Ireland. Am I being unreasonable?
A: Nope. Go to Ireland, have a great time, and send your boyfriend a postcard. Consider sending him nothing at all.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.