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. Guilty by proxy?: I work in a busy metropolitan area and often cross intersections against the light when there are no cars coming to save time, as I’m often traversing 12 or more blocks at a time across town. I’m very careful and know the traffic patterns of my routes well. However, last week, I was crossing the road after carefully checking that it was clear. A woman on the other side of the crosswalk looked right at me, saw that I was crossing the street (I was almost completely across by then), abruptly stepped into the road without looking and was struck by a car. I called 911 and waited with other bystanders until they came. I felt so horrible that I almost felt it would have been justified to press charges against me in the moment. The woman was clearly looking at me rather than the pedestrian light to determine if she could cross. I believe everyone is responsible for their personal safety in matters such as crossing the road, which is why I am willing to take the personal risk of crossing against the light, but now I feel I jeopardized someone else’s safety without meaning to. What can I do to assuage my guilt? I feel so awful I’ve been having trouble sleeping and feel traumatized.
A: Your traumatized response is completely understandable, although I’m glad to hear you’re aware, at least intellectually, that you were not responsible for this woman’s accident. Bear in mind that you did the right thing in the moment by calling 911 and staying with this woman until help arrived, and that it’s every individual’s responsibility to check for cars before crossing the street. What you witnessed was shocking, sudden, and violent; if you’re having trouble sleeping and find yourself jumpy and hyper-alert throughout the day, you might find PTSD therapy helpful. If you’d like to do something more active to alleviate your guilt, consider supporting an organization that promotes pedestrian safety in your city. In the meantime, if you find your daily commute increasingly stressful, consider only crossing with the light. Even if that adds a few minutes to your travel time, it may go a long way toward easing your mind.
Q. Sleepovers: My son and his friends are all 9 years old. A couple of weeks ago he had a friend that was over at our house until pretty late on a Friday night, the boys were pretty into the game they were playing, so I asked “Ryan” if he’d like to stay the night. He said sure, and I contacted his parents to see if that would be OK. It wasn’t, and I understood since it was on very short notice. Then this past week my son and Ryan wanted to plan a sleepover. Ryan was again unable to spend the night, and later his mother texted me saying “It isn’t you, he’s just not allowed to do any sleepovers since things go wrong and people make bad decisions.” Ignoring that I think it’s weird and that there’s nothing that can happen at night to someone that can’t also happen during the day, my question is this: We will soon be finishing our basement, and my son would like to have a couple of friends over to go to a movie and then have a sleepover as a “celebration” that the basement is done. Do we invite Ryan again, knowing that his parents will say no? I’m conflicted, and can see it as Ryan feeling left out if he wasn’t invited, even knowing he can’t come; but then I don’t want to fuel any hard feelings between Ryan and his parents or make his parents think “We’ve already told this woman no? Doesn’t she understand the meaning of the word?”
A: What an odd and vague rule! “Ryan can’t spend the night … Things go wrong. People make bad decisions” sounds like a tag line to a very strange apocalyptic children’s movie. But if you’re aware that your son’s friend isn’t allowed to attend sleepovers as a general rule, weird or not, you should respect it, and leave it at that. Feel free to tell Ryan’s parents that he’s always welcome at your house for an overnight visit if they ever change their mind as he gets older, but don’t keep asking about individual exceptions.
Q. Dad wants to spend money to get me married!: Neither me nor my father is an Orthodox Jew, both of us being pretty happy at our small Conservative synagogue. Recently though, Dad has taken to attending the Chabad synagogue (think very Orthodox Jews: Old men who sit separately from the women, and very traditional). As it turns out, he claims he did this because the Chabad has a woman who is a matchmaker, and he informed me that he’s planning to spend about $700 to have her introduce me to a woman around my age with the intent of quickly getting married. I don’t know where this came from, or why he blindsided me with it. I’m not sure if I do or don’t want this. My research into arranged marriages has been heartwarming at best, and horrific at worst. I get that he wants me to be happy and thinks that this is the way to happiness, and I don’t disagree, but I can’t fathom having him spend that much on something I’m not completely certain about. Is there a way to gently talk him out of this endeavor?
A: Dismiss gentleness as a method entirely! This is not a situation that calls for gentleness; if you’re “not sure” that you want to enter into an arranged marriage, err on the side of not binding yourself permanently to a woman you’re not sure about. There are plenty of ways to meet marriage-minded women, if you think marriage (to someone you have more than a nodding acquaintance with) is something you want, that don’t involve your father’s direct involvement or spending hundreds of dollars on a matchmaker. Tell him straight out that you’re not sure why he made this decision without consulting you, but that he shouldn’t waste his money by hiring a matchmaker on your behalf. Tell him you don’t want to hurt whatever women she might have in mind, who may genuinely be interested in an arranged marriage, since you’re neither certain nor prepared to enter into such an arrangement. You seem sure that your father genuinely means well, so feel free to thank him for his interest and concern, but let him know that he does not need to make major decisions about your future on your behalf.
Q. Re: Sleepovers: The easiest solution is just to invite “Ryan” over for the first part of the evening and then his parents agree to pick him up by a certain time. Explain to them in advance that the other boys will be staying over, and Ryan is welcome if they are comfortable with that, but if not, you’ll be back from the movies by whatever time and they can pick him up then. Easy-peasy.
A: That’s a lovely compromise that allows Ryan to still feel included without trying to get his parents to change their rule. Thanks!
Dear Prudie: I love everything about my boyfriend except his recreational drug habits:
Hear more Prudence at Slate.com/Prudiepod.
Q. Ready to start a family at 29: I have a lovely, good boyfriend who I’ve been with for three years. He is four years younger than me and just starting out in his new career that he’s been working hard to get going. It’s going to be a bit of a road for him to work his way up to a comfortable wage, and his work takes him out of town a lot. The problem is that for the past year I have been struggling with deep, bizarre-to-me urges to have children. We’ve discussed and planned a life together, but in his eyes the marriage and kid part doesn’t start for a couple more years at least. I don’t know what to do. I love him so much, but I am afraid of missing a chance to have a family, which I so deeply desire right now. I would be OK with starting in a couple years, if I could be guaranteed that my baby-making parts will all be in good shape (all this drama around fertility declining after 30 makes me really anxious). Help me work through this.
A: If you’re anxious about your ability to have biological children in a few years, go to the doctor and get your fertility tested, so that you have sufficient information to make long-term plans, like freezing your eggs. If you learn that you’re in excellent reproductive health and your boyfriend cheerily anticipates being ready for parenthood three or four years down the line, so much the better (although it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s always possible he could get hit by a bus or change his mind; nothing is guaranteed). If you learn that having biological children may require medical intervention or likely prove difficult-to-impossible for you, then you and your boyfriend will have to have a separate set of conversations. Consider what would be the absolute worst-case scenario for you. Would it be never having biological children at all? Spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on fertility treatments if they did not prove successful? Would you be willing to consider raising children as a single parent, or would you only want to have children with a partner? Whatever the answer to these questions are, you don’t have to sit around wondering about the status of your reproductive health—you can find out right now.
Q. Friends and age: Recently my daughter was telling me her new friend Sue’s mother doesn’t let Sue hang out with friends two years older than her for sleepovers, meetups, etc. Even when chaperoned with a parent. In my opinion this is slightly odd. My daughter doesn’t have friends with a huge age gap, but two years doesn’t seem like a big deal. Both girls are young teenagers. Is this a common rule other parents have?
A: I have no idea if this is a common rule for parents, but whether it’s ordinary as houses or the only rule of its kind in the world doesn’t really matter. Your own daughter, fortunately, falls within the two-year cutoff, so it doesn’t affect you. Feel free to institute as many (or as few) age-related friendship rules as you like on your own daughter, and leave it at that. If you want to privately consider Sue’s parents a little overbearing, go right ahead; one of the great joys of parenting is privately considering all other parents of one’s acquaintance to be out of their gourds. But this is not a situation that requires outside intervention.
Q. Undecided girlfriend: My boyfriend and I enjoy different things to the extent that the way we like to spend our weekends, holidays, and even evenings is very different. We have loved each other very much, have a lot in common, and get along in many ways, but whenever I think of a life of accommodating (especially to his love of overdrinking to the point of not being able to talk properly), I get irritated, feel out of love, and even look down on him. I’m not ready to leave my best friend and lover, but I keep wanting to—how can I make up my mind?
A: You get to spend as much time as you like feeling irritated, out of love, and contemptuous toward your boyfriend as you need before you leave. Or, if you’re not especially good at hiding feelings of irritation and contempt, he may decide to leave you once he realizes every time you start thinking about a future together, you roll your eyes and head for the nearest exit. It’s simply a question of how much time you’re interested in spending kicking this can down the road.
Ask yourself why you’re not ready to leave your boyfriend. You say he’s your “best friend,” but surely you don’t normally feel irritated, stone-hearted, and scornful about your other friends when you contemplate the future of your relationship together. Are you worried about what it might feel like to be single? Reluctant to leave someone you know you can always rely upon for affection and comfort, even if you no longer care for them? Scared of the unknown? Feel like ending your relationship now will somehow invalidate the relationship you two once had years ago? Whatever you’re afraid to face, it’s likely that staying in this relationship you know isn’t going anywhere is protecting you from it.
Take another look at the letter you just wrote. You described a relationship where you and your boyfriend have such wildly differing desires that, if you two were to design an ideal monthly, weekly, or even daily calendar, it wouldn’t be able to include the both of you. You claim to have “a lot in common,” but can’t see yourself spending an evening together and both enjoying it. You mention that he loves to drink himself into a stupor, and envision your future with him with disgust and aversion. You say that you “keep wanting” to leave him. I’m not sure what else you need to make up your mind, but you just might find the reason in your own words, if you’re willing to take a second look.
Q. Gaslighting?: For 20-plus years I have struggled with depression. In that time I’ve been hospitalized twice and gone through multiple types of treatments. I am also on a number of medications, probably for life. That said, I’m afraid I’m being gaslighted. I have frequently been “corrected” on my memories, even on ones that seem so clear and certain to me. Is it reasonable for me to fear something is happening here? Or should I accept that my memories may often be wrong due to my mental health issues?
A: This is a difficult question to answer, especially since I don’t have many details about your treatment plan or the symptoms you’ve experienced, but I think I can offer you a few guiding principles that may prove helpful. If the “corrections” you receive are coming from multiple sources, and they generally agree with one another, then it’s unlikely you are being intentionally manipulated. It’s possible that someone else’s recollection of past events may simply differ from your own. This does not necessarily mean the other party maliciously intends to deceive you, or cause you to doubt your own recollection; “gaslighting” only comes into play if you suspect someone of deliberately sabotaging your health and independence. If a friend or family member remembers a certain time in your past as dark and painful, for example, while you consider it to have been unremarkable, that doesn’t mean they’re trying to gaslight you—they simply had a different experience of your behavior than you did. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you must always miscount your own memory when it doesn’t line up with someone else’s; you are not automatically “wrong” because you suffer from depression or take medication. If, however, you generally trust the people in your life, and believe they have your best interests at heart, it’s likely that you can also trust that they are not trying to gaslight you, and that you can sometimes disagree or remember events differently for perfectly benign reasons.
Q. My doctor is a Chatty Cathy: After a few visits to the new doctor, I’ve noticed a pattern. He loves to talk about himself. It’s never inappropriate, but he mentions his paperwork, his commute, daily chatter, and what he eats, and spends lots of time talking about his stuff during the visit. His care is great once I ask questions. I despise talking about myself and like to listen, so I don’t think this is a problem. But I’ve never run across a doctor who talks this much. Is it OK to just listen as long as I’m getting the care I need? It’s a medical doctor, not a therapist, so I’m not paying him to listen to me talk the whole time.
A: It is a rare and delightful occasion when to get to tell someone who has written to me that they are not in possession of a problem! Allow me to give you the good news: You do not have a problem! You have a chatty doctor, but he’s neither inappropriately intimate nor discussing topics you find offensive, and he pays careful attention to you when the topic turns to your health. As long as his digressions don’t bother you or distract him from the task at hand, allow yourself to drift merrily along the surface of his meaningless sea of chatter.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Remember, if you want to go out with your widowed brother-in-law, ask him directly; nieces are not default matchmakers. See you next week!