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. Too close for comfort: I have always been a little claustrophobic, but it has never been a big problem until recently. My boyfriend and I were making out when he suddenly let his full body weight drop on top of me. He’s a good 100 pounds heavier so I could hardly move. I started to panic, which was made worse when I started being unable to breath, which led to a massive, hyperventilating freakout. At first my boyfriend was really worried, but when I finally calmed down enough to explain, he thought that it was hilarious and that he could cure me of my phobia. He’ll randomly sneak up behind me, wrap his arms and legs around mine, essentially making his body a cage for mine, and refuse to let go. The more I struggle the tighter he holds on. He thinks if I just get used to it I’ll relax and be OK, except I can’t relax and these sessions usually end with me sobbing/hysterical/hyperventilating. I’ve even passed out. I’ve tried telling him to stop, that it’s not his job to “cure” me, but he just becomes more determined. I’ve become completely paranoid and can’t relax, just waiting for him to grab me. I’ve stopped initiating any intimate contact and feel horribly anxious whenever he does. How can I make him understand that, far from helping me, he’s actually making me worse?
A: Please leave him. Please, please, please leave him. Your boyfriend understands perfectly well that he is not helping you. He is acutely, terrifyingly aware that what he is doing reduces you to the point of hysterical tears and hyperventilation, and he doesn’t care. He enjoys making you feel on edge, paranoid, panicked, and unsafe. He likes making it worse, and the more you beg him to stop or try to help him understand, the more powerful and in control he feels.
You say the very first time this happened your boyfriend was worried until he realized you were terrified and claustrophobic, at which point he found it “hilarious” and announced his determination to “cure” you. What he means by “cure” is “torment.” He delights in tormenting you, and I’m so, so sorry this is happening. Please know that he is absolutely aware of what he is doing, that there is no way you could communicate your distress and frustration to him that would make him stop, and that you do not deserve this treatment. This is not an accident or a miscommunication. You’ve already stopped initiating intimacy, which tells me the extent to which you feel afraid, paralyzed, and unsafe around your partner. No one should ever have to feel that way in a relationship. Break up with him immediately. Don’t worry if he claims not to understand, or tries to make you feel like you’re being dramatic, that he was “just kidding around.” He’s not kidding around. He isn’t safe, and he isn’t trustworthy, and he isn’t going to stop.
Q. Bloody scrooge: The annual blood drive is here. Everyone is talking about how wonderful and inclusive it is, a good cause, etc., and this year my co-worker has taken initiative on advertising for the blood drive. My problem is, as a man married to another man, even though we are monogamous and I am at no more risk for STDs than any other married person, I cannot donate blood and feel incredibly excluded and marginalized every year at this time. With my co-worker talking about it all the time, it is coming up even more. I know donating blood is an important cause. How do I reconcile this with my personal feelings of discrimination?
A: Your personal feelings of discrimination are merited and appropriate! The ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood is an outdated and unnecessarily restrictive one; the American Medical Association issued a formal statement in 2013 calling on the FDA to lift the ban, calling it “discriminatory and not based on sound science.” (Italy, for example, does not restrict blood donation on the basis of sexual orientation but whether the potential donor has recently had high-risk sexual encounters.) Currently the FDA does not allow men who have had sex with men in the past year, nor any of their female partners, to donate blood, even though all donated blood is screened for disease and lifting the ban could add more than 360,000 new donors each year. You can volunteer your time to help facilitate the blood drive, or donate money to the organization hosting it, if you want to help patients in need of blood transfusions in another way. If you’re looking for something to do with these feelings of frustration and injustice at the same time, consider contacting your legislators and urging them to encourage the FDA to revise its guidelines.
Q. Charitable inheritance: I’ve just received a rather large inheritance from my grandfather. It would pay off my loans and other debts, which aren’t substantial compared with others, but are of course a reasonably large part of my monthly bills. I’m extremely fortunate—I grew up middle class and privileged, which is why I’d like to give all of it away. I want to pay off my financial debts with work wherever possible, and I want others who need money much more than I do to be able to get a leg up. I have a good job now that pays a large salary. My debts are small in comparison with other people my age, and I have company-provided health insurance. I hold no illusion that any of this is guaranteed to last, but I want to help people who could never even dream of being where I am at all. Mine is a situation many people will never find themselves lucky enough to be in. I know that it’s by sheer dumb luck that I was born into a family that could help me through life to get me to where I am now. If I donate the inheritance, I’d still like to honor my grandfather in some way, but I don’t know if the charities I’d donate to would be to his taste. Is it wrong to donate, and should I keep his preferences in mind when I do, even if they might not align with my own?
A: You’re honoring your grandfather by putting your inheritance to good use. You’re not obligated to re-create his tastes and values exactly. You’re honoring your grandfather’s memory by donating the money to organizations you believe to be doing valuable and necessary work. Presumably his intention in leaving this money to you was to ensure that you were financially stable and able to contribute meaningfully to society. Luckily for you, you are already financially stable and well on your way to living debt free; give the money to wherever you think it’s likely to do the most good with a clear conscience.
Q. Mid-20s crisis: My partner and I married fairly young, in our early 20s. I had never lived on my own and I lived with my parents during university. We are now in our late 20s, and I find myself angry and resentful that I never gave myself the chance to experience life with no strings attached. We are nearing 30, and I don’t feel like there’s enough time to save up and travel abroad if we want to have kids before we’re 40. At this point, it is more important to me to travel than to have kids. I constantly daydream about traveling on my own and having one-night stands without telling my partner so I can experience what I want to and still keep my marriage. I know I would be miserable alone, but I don’t know how to maintain a happy marriage and get this out of my system.
A: If nothing else, make it very clear to your partner that you don’t want to have children anytime soon, and make sure you two are very careful about birth control. If you’re angry and resentful now, imagine how much worse off you’ll be if your partner convinces you that having a child together will slake your thirst for change.
As for the rest of it, I’m afraid I don’t have a more interesting solution to your problem than good old-fashioned painful honesty. Your partner cannot possibly grant you greater freedom and independence if they don’t know that’s what you want. You seem pretty clear on the fact that you love your partner and don’t want to leave them, but that you’re increasingly frustrated when it comes to monogamy and the idea that, since you’re in a committed relationship, you’re not “allowed” to travel by yourself. It may be that your partner shares some of your frustrations! Even if they don’t, it’s perfectly fine for a married person to want to travel solo, and if that’s what you want, you should tell your partner and then make it happen. The monogamy conversation will likely be trickier (and ongoing), but it’s better to have an honest argument, or an honest series of arguments, then start up a series of secret one-night stands. It may be that once you open up about your reluctance to have children right now (do you want to have them at all? Because you don’t have to! Children are optional!), your desire to travel and spend more time alone, to develop more of a sense of independence, your longing for one-night stands will fade. It may be that this longing does not fade, and then you will have to give your partner the opportunity to decide whether or not they are interested in navigating an open relationship with you. But don’t make that decision for them just because you’re afraid they won’t want the same things.
Q. Awkward comments: My wife has an unusual sense of humor. I normally don’t mind, but sometimes her jokes take a turn for the awkward. For example, we were recently at a BBQ with a few friends. One friend had mentioned that they had recently done a big favor for another friend. My wife made several jokes about how we’ve never received such a favor from them. Her barbs weren’t particularly sharp, but it was still very awkward and likely made others cringe. On the drive home, I wanted to say something about how pointing out life’s minor inequalities isn’t necessarily prime joke material … but I don’t even know where to begin. Or to begin at all? How do you even start a conversation about “don’t make cringe-y jokes, please?”
A: It may be more helpful to your wife to provide specific examples of this behavior, and I think you should start with the most recent incident. This is likely not something she’s noticed in herself before, and you’ll have to be both tactful and honest with her if you want to encourage her to adjust. You’re not telling her she’s a socially incompetent jerk, just pointing out that every once in a while she takes a joke too far.
“I don’t know if you noticed this, but the other night you made several jokes about how Karen’s never done a big favor for us, and it made me uncomfortable. I think it made Karen uncomfortable too. I know you didn’t intend to make her feel singled out, but it came across as more than just a joke—like you thought she owed us something. I’m bringing it up not because I think you made a huge, horrible faux pas, but because I’d want you to tell me if I had inadvertently made someone else uncomfortable when I was trying to tell a joke.”
Q. Re: Bloody scrooge: I didn’t know same-sex-partnered people could not donate blood, and I guess I’m not the only one. If your colleagues know your marital situation, tell them you can’t donate blood (and offer to volunteer at the sign-in table or distribute cookies, if you want). If they don’t know and you feel you must excuse yourself, fib and say for medical reasons you can’t donate (and volunteer if you want).
Q. Re: Bloody scrooge: Don’t take it personally. I haven’t been able to donate blood in over a decade because I regularly travel to places that disqualify me from doing so. I understand where you’re coming from, since the restriction on gay men donating blood is definitely an antiquated holdover from a less enlightened time, but it doesn’t sound like this drive is being organized with malicious intent (and it’s very likely you’re not the only person in your office that can’t donate, for whatever reason).
A: These both offer helpful distinctions! I think the letter writer’s resentment of the ban itself is legitimate, but it’s important to bear in mind that his co-workers are in no way responsible for it, and to channel his energies appropriately.
Q. Phone volume etiquette: I work in the reception area of an office with bad, echo-y acoustics; my boss works in the adjacent office. My job requires lots of phone time and often we have bad connections in which the caller asks me to speak up. This drives my boss crazy, and he says that I need to keep my voice down. But when I do, the callers can’t hear me. We live in an area with notoriously bad cell reception, so it’s common to have rough connections. Also, some callers are elderly or hard of hearing. Who should get precedence, the caller or the other people in the office? I feel like it should be the caller, but I’ve been told otherwise. In fact, for a year in college (before cells or cordless phones) my roommates refused to let me talk on the phone to my elderly father because I had to speak loudly. I recognize that high volume bothers people, but what about the person on the other line?
A: This seems like a problem your boss should be helping you solve! Presumably he does not want your clients to be unable to hear you when they call. Present the situation to him and ask for help finding a solution that works for both of you: “I know you’ve asked me to keep my voice down during calls in the past, and I don’t want to disturb anyone else in the office while I’m speaking to clients. Since our connections are usually bad, most clients ask me to speak up, and can’t hear me if I speak at a normal volume. How would you like me to address this?” It may be that there’s another part of the office not quite so close to the center of things where you can take calls in relative privacy, it may be that your boss wants you to encourage clients to email you if their connection is bad, or it may be that he’ll have to walk back his initial request. Either way, he should be offering something more constructive than “keep it down” if that means your clients can’t hear what you’re saying.
Q. Fiancée wants to invite ex to our wedding: My fiancée “Amy” and I will be getting married toward the end of this year. She has a child with another man, and they have a fairly cordial, if occasionally awkward, co-parenting relationship. I have met him before, and he is a good father to my soon-to-be stepdaughter. Since he is her child’s biological father, Amy would like to invite him to our wedding. In theory, I shouldn’t have a problem with this. I understand and accept that he will be in our lives for a long time. At the same time, there is a large part of me that just does not want to spend my wedding day looking at a man who has had sex with Amy. We’ve discussed it, and she says she’ll leave the final decision up to me. I’m inclined to say no. Are my feelings reasonable, or am I just being a jerk?
A: Presumably every time you look at Amy’s child you do not find yourself thinking about the fact that, in order to produce said child, she had sex with another man. You are joining Amy’s family, and her co-parent will always be a part of that family, so it’s better to get comfortable with that now. He’s not just “a man who has had sex with Amy,” he’s the father of her child and your soon-to-be-stepdaughter. You’re not a jerk for feeling insecure or jealous, but you shouldn’t let those feelings dictate your actions. You don’t have to repress or bottle up these feelings, however. Tell your soon-to-be-wife that there is a part of you that, perhaps selfishly, wishes that you could pretend neither of you existed before you met one another. Then let it go, and invite him to the wedding. He may feel similarly awkward and may not even attend—but if he does, you don’t have to do anything but be briefly polite to him, then focus on your own happiness.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.