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.
Mallory Ortberg: This week, let us all strive to be as keen-eyed, as decent, and as difficult to fool as Columbo. Let’s chat.
Q. Aunt wants dad to date again after mom’s death: My mother died two years ago after a long, painful battle with cancer. Dad was a perfect caretaker during her final months and was with her in the hospital every day of her illness. My issue now is that one aunt keeps asking nosy questions about whether Dad is dating again, and keeps bringing it up whenever I see her. I know widowers supposedly move on quickly, but Dad doesn’t seem interested. He’s not depressed or reclusive, but he doesn’t want to date. But my aunt keeps asking, and it’s very uncomfortable for me. It’s especially frustrating because she first asked about it only a month after Mom died while we were at a wedding reception, and it wound up making me cry, but she still keeps asking. Plus, she’s my mom’s sister, not dad’s, so it feels strange that she’s so eager to move on. What do I do?
A: I’m trying to be as generous as possible toward your aunt, but even so I can’t come up with a reasonable justification for why she should repeatedly ask you, starting merely a month after your mother’s funeral, whether or not your father is dating again. You are under no obligation to entertain your aunt’s odd, invasive questions. Feel completely free to tell her that you don’t know whether your father is dating, have no interest in pushing him to date if he doesn’t feel like it, and will not be available to answer any further questions about the subject. If your aunt wants to know if your father is dating, she can ask him. She might even consider the merits of minding her own business.
Q. Coming out of the poly closet: I am a woman in my mid-20s in a polyamorous relationship with two men and one woman. I’m very happy with all of these relationships, but my problem is how to draw a line between pretending that the only partner I have is the one my friends and co-workers have met (which I don’t want to do, because I’ve been dating all three of them for several years, and they are all very important parts of my life) and having to go through the whole tedious, embarrassing and judgmental process of explaining that yes, I’m dating multiple people and yes, they all know about each other, and yes, that certainly is very “modern.” I wouldn’t mind, but everybody has an opinion, and it always derails the conversation totally. I used to be able to get away with it, because both my boyfriends have the same name, but in the past couple of years bringing my girlfriend into the fold has complicated matters. Do I just refer to them as my friends? Pretend they’re all the same person? Try to downplay it? What’s the easiest way to carry on the conversation without having to unpick every aspect of my dating life for the past six years?
A: Since your goal is to find the easiest way to participate in lighthearted office chat without opening up your personal life for everyone’s inspection, stick to the easiest version of the truth. “My partner Esteñabeth and I went rock-watching this weekend with Esteñabeth and Grenevieve, who live with us,” or some other generic friends-and-roommates variation, will do just fine. You’re not scrubbing Esteñabeth II and Grenevieve from your day-to-day life or pretending they don’t exist, but you’re also not inviting your co-workers to tell you about their friends Michaelwards and Stormbreath who tried opening up their relationship three years ago and how badly that went, or putting yourself in the position of a lot of uncomfortable follow-up questions (“Do you all have sex? With each other? Do you ever have sex all at the same time? What do your parents think?”) when you just want to get your work finished for the day and go home to your fantastic partners. If you’re just looking for the “easiest way to carry on the conversation,” that’s almost certainly it; anything else is likely to invite a lot of scrutiny you don’t want or need at work.
Q. Mom blaming depression on bisexuality?: I came out to my mother as bisexual a couple of years ago. She took it pretty well. At the time I was also going through therapy (I might go back now) for mild-but-definitely-affecting-my-life depression. My symptoms have recently been worsening again, and my mom seems to be implying that maybe it’s because I’ve never dated a woman (I’m female). She means well, but she compared it to a straight woman being a nun and that she’d have felt “suppressed” if she’d never had sex with men. I told her it wasn’t for lack of trying, but that seems like a really inadequate response to a very weird theory and I can’t figure out how to approach it.
A: It’s sweet, if enormously misguided, that your mother is trying to be supportive of your bisexuality, but this is just nonsense and should be treated (gently!) as such. “Mom, I appreciate that you mean well, but my depression is unrelated to my sexuality and can’t be treated by getting a girlfriend. Being bisexual isn’t like being a nun in the direction of a specific gender, and it doesn’t help me when I bring up my depression, and you reply, ‘Yeah, and you’ve never dated a woman, either.’ I’m not suppressed, I’m happily out; whether or not I date women in the future, I’m still going to struggle with the physical realities of depression, as I have for a number of years.” Feel free, of course, to share less about your depression with your mother if you think she’s likely to continue to trot forth a number of well-meaning and nonsensical theories; save those conversations for your doctor and your therapist.
Q. Re: Aunt wants dad to date again after mom’s death: The aunt wants to upgrade to stepmom, although I don’t think badgering the daughter to the point of tears in necessarily the way to go.
A: Yeah, I’m getting a lot of letters to the effect of “The aunt is trying to find out if her sister’s widow is dating again because she herself wants to date him,” which is at the very least, an ineffective strategy. Hopefully she’s just being garden-variety nosy, but it’s certainly possible that she thinks hounding her former brother-in-law’s daughter ceaselessly is a good way to get an “in” with him. Whatever the reason, she needs to knock it off.
Q. Keep a secret?: My husband and I have a friend we’ll call “Philip” who recently found out he has contracted chlamydia. His two most recent sexual partners are a girlfriend he had dated for a few months and an old flame who he hooked up with while she cheated on her boyfriend. He has informed his ex-girlfriend of the disease so she can get tested but says he won’t tell the former flame. Philip admits he’s making a “moral transgression” by not telling her but still says he won’t do it because he’s worried that this may lead to her boyfriend finding out about the cheating. This puts my husband and I in a pickle. We have urged him strongly to tell her, but he won’t listen. He’s specifically told my husband not to go behind his back and tell her (my husband and the flame know each other from college). So what do we do? Do we tell her anyway? Do we risk her having a dangerous disease so Philip doesn’t get upset? My husband has thought about splitting the difference by telling her she should talk to Philip but not why, but I’m worried that may cause even more trouble.
A: Chlamydia is a fairly common and treatable STI, but it can permanently damage the reproductive system if left untreated, so if Philip’s ex doesn’t know, she ought to get tested, she might be at risk of decreased fertility in the future or an ectopic pregnancy. Philip’s not doing himself any favors with this head-in-the-sand approach, either—his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is likelier to find out that she cheated on him if he learns he’s contracted an STI the next time he gets checked out. Either way, this woman should know that she’s been exposed to chlamydia and ought to see a doctor. Your loyalty to Philip should not extend to the point of keeping this secret for him, even if he asked you to. Tell him that if he’s not going to tell his former flame, that you will, and then go right ahead and do it if he continues to put it off. If Philip gets upset, he gets upset; if her boyfriend dumps her, he dumps her. What matters is that this woman and her boyfriend know they’ve been exposed to chlamydia and needs to get tested right away, not to make sure that nobody gets upset.
Q. Bound by Batman: Months ago, I borrowed some comics from my friend, whom I had only seen sporadically for years. We were trying to reconnect. However, I recently realized that she’s self-centered, prejudiced, and doubles down on her prejudice when called out. I don’t want to spend any more time with her, but I still have her comics and I want to give them back. Can I mail them with a note? We live an hour and a half apart, so I think this is reasonable. My wife thinks that would be a blatant, hurtful signal of a friend breakup, so I should suck it up and see her one more time. I just really, really want to avoid listening to racist, transphobic comments!
A: Returning some comics you’ve borrowed by mail is not a universally understood sign of a friend breakup, unless you include “I’m sending these back through the post because I can’t stand the thought of seeing you in person” in your note. Mail the comics back, attach a generically pleasant thank-you note, and don’t worry about it.
Q. No more tongue, please: I sincerely dislike French kissing. I always have, with every partner, at any given time. I just do not see the appeal in putting your tongue in someone else’s mouth. My boyfriend on the other hand loves it and wants to do it every time we are about to have sex. So here I am, dreading the moment he will inevitably wriggle that tongue in, and I have to clench my fists to stop myself from physically pushing him away when he does. He gets upset when he realizes I am not participating enthusiastically and takes it personally, despite my telling him it has nothing to do with him (or his techniques). I understand relationships are about giving and taking, and on one hand I feel like maybe I should occasionally just let him have his way, but on the other hand: Why do I have keep doing something that grosses me out so much? I am torn between telling the boyfriend his preference is not more important than my dislike and he needs to quit the tongue wrestling, and worrying there is something seriously wrong with me for not enjoying what is supposed to be an intimate, enjoyable act. What is your take on this?
A: It’s fairly standard for someone to expect their partner will want to kiss them (and will enjoy doing so!), so it’s likely that your boyfriend doesn’t realize the extent to which you hate kissing and is doing his best to find a technique you’ll respond to. Since you’ve always hated it with every partner you’ve ever been with and have to clench your fists to keep from pushing your current boyfriend away when he tries to kiss you now, I think you need to err on the side of making things perfectly clear. It’s not that you’ve had a bad experience with sloppy kissers in the past, or you want him to kiss you in a different way—you hate kissing, it grosses you out, and you don’t want to do it at all. That’s definitely unusual, and may even be a deal-breaker for your boyfriend, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with you just because you don’t like making out, and I think it’s worth being honest about. You’ve tried forcing yourself to go along with it for your boyfriend’s sake, but it doesn’t sound like that’s been working especially well—he routinely gets upset when he realizes you’re not actually enjoying yourself, and you’re turning your body into knots trying to push through. If you were indifferent to it, then periodically going along to get along might work for you, but you hate it. Maybe you two can come to a different agreement or maybe you two will break up; either way, I think you’ll be better off being honest about your feelings.
Q. Depressed and uncertain: My boyfriend and I have been dating for 2½ years and have been friends most of our lives. A few months ago, I told him that I felt like I loved him more than he loved me, and he said, “You’re probably right.” His dad died when he was a child, and he saw the pain his mother went through. He says he doesn’t want that type of thing to happen to him. I explained I don’t need a proposal, I just need to know that we’re moving in a direction that will eventually be permanent, but he couldn’t even give me that. I’ve suggested therapy, but he shuts down when I mention it. He once said he’s OK with being sad, which floored me. I know he has depression, but he seems not to want to get better and he won’t accept help. What should I do?
A: This isn’t a very original or surprising answer, but I think you should leave. It’s sad that his father died when he was a child, but for him to use that as justification for saying, “You probably love me more than I love you” requires some pretty spectacular emotional gymnastics. I imagine that you said, “I feel like I love you more than you love me” for a reason, and that reason was that he was communicating pretty clearly that he didn’t love you very much, and you weren’t happy with how he treated you. You two are not on the same page when it comes to long-term commitment, he shuts down when you mention the idea of therapy, he’s made it clear that he’s comfortable being unhappy on a regular basis, and he’s not getting any treatment for his depression. This is not laying the groundwork for a happy, healthy, long-term relationship, and I think you already know that.
He has been very honest with you in terms of what he is capable of giving, which is “not very much.” If you stay in this relationship, it’s very likely that you will continue to get more of the same from him. He’ll love you a little, he’ll communicate less, he’ll shut down when you ask him questions about topics he doesn’t want to discuss, he’ll utilize his childhood loss as a reason not to show you he cares or be emotionally vulnerable with you, and he won’t seek help when he needs it. The deciding factor, I think, needs to be that he heard you say, “I think I love you more than you love me,” and replied, “Yeah, that’s probably true.” He doesn’t see it as a problem, and that’s a troubling sign of things to come. I know you’ve known him all your life, and you would like to be able to help him get better, but you can’t force someone to get help for something they don’t think is wrong, and you shouldn’t put yourself through a relationship with someone who loves you less than you deserve.
Q. Re: No more tongue, please: The reader does not like TONGUE kissing, not all kissing. Just tell him “no tongue please. I want to focus on our lips.” She doesn’t hate kissing and all kissing doesn’t gross her out, just the tongue. She should not consider herself “definitely unusual” for not liking tongue.
A: Tongue kissing is a pretty significant subset of kissing, especially the type of kissing that precedes sex with a long-term partner. That said, there’s nothing wrong with being unusual, or falling on the far end of a bell curve; if she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t like it, and it sounds like she’s given it more than a fair shake.
Q. Confronting a bully: Years ago I was a part of a group of friends who all met during our first year at university. One of the girls, Christine, lived close by, so during the summers we spent more one-on-one time together. Unfortunately the friendship became very toxic. She would belittle and insult me until I would blow up. Of course everyone believed I was the difficult one because she never behaved to the group the way she did with me. The final straw came when she insulted me in front of a group of her friends. After being complimented on my recent weight loss by a friend of hers, she turned to me and said, “Well, I think you’re starting to look horse-faced and unattractive.” I did not react. I was completely numb. I wrote her a letter two days later explaining that I was finished, that no one deserved the constant bullying she was subjecting me to. She sent a few venom-filled letters for a while (which I did not allow myself to read) then eventually she just left me alone. Fast-forward to today. The old group is getting together for dinner soon. She specifically asked a mutual friend to ask me to attend. Our mutual friend contacted me and asked me to come with the proviso that I not cause any tension. Part of me wants to tell all of them off, they do not know my life at all it would seem. The other part wants to attend and see if she has changed and just enjoy time together with old friends. Am I an idiot?
A: She has not changed, and if you attend this dinner, you will not enjoy time together with old friends; you will immediately feel singled out and agitated, unable to stop watching her for signs she’s about to start up the old routine. You’re not an idiot for wanting to see old friends, but attending—especially under the condition that you “not cause any tension” with your former bully—would be a mistake. Your friends did not listen to you the first time around, and they won’t listen to you now. Hopefully the friends you’ve made as an adult treat you well and listen to you; spend time with the people you’re close to now, and don’t submit yourself to another round of covert abuse.