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 new 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: Good morning! Are you troubled? Listless? Downcast in your very soul? Me too. Let’s chat a while.
Q. Uncertain: I’m in my early 40s, never married, no kids, but always wanted both. I’m in a relationship of 10 months. The guy could not be sweeter or a person of better character. He loves me and treats me well. I was so in love the first six months but he is increasingly getting on my nerves—he is a bit quirky and goofy. And I don’t always find it amusing; increasingly I find it irritating. I have had several relationships like this (start out great, then fall apart at eight months or a year), and I am starting to wonder if I’m just projecting my insecurities onto him or if I need to end the relationship. I am in therapy. I just feel like there’s got to be something wrong with me if I have dated all these different men and nothing’s stuck. I long to be like most of my friends: married, settled, happy, in a family, kiddos running around.
A: I don’t know if you should break up with him! Look, if your goal is merely to get married and see a bunch of running children, then you can probably make that happen, likely with this guy, and then probably get divorced in a few years. But if your goal is to marry someone you feel pretty strongly about, who you (on average) like more than you dislike, then you should probably take a little time to explore this discomfort and irritation. I’m not inclined to offer a sweeping pronouncement about your dating history because there’s not quite enough detail here to do so. Maybe you’ve backed off of your past relationships at the year mark because there’s something about long-term intimacy that frightens you (I mean, it frightens most people), or maybe you’ve ended things because none of those people were especially well-suited for you.
Do you find yourself irritated with your boyfriend most of the time? Does being around him generally feel neutral, does it feel exciting, or does it raise your hackles and make you feel pre-emptively annoyed at the thought of dealing with his personality quirks? Are there particular habits that get under your skin, and if so, could you see yourself saying something to him about them? If you want to marry and have children with someone, odds are you’re going to be signing up for dealing with at least some idiosyncracies that drive you bonkers. The fact that you considered yourself “so in love” for the first six months of your relationship and are now experiencing a significant drop in affection and tolerance suggests that either you two aren’t especially compatible and once the sheen of new love wore off you began to realize that, and/or something about getting to know someone at a deeper level than just “You love caramel corn and podcasts about unsolved murders too? But I thought I was the only one!” makes you irritable, restless, and uncomfortable. I can’t tell you which one (or which combination of the two) it is, but if you’re interested in trying to break a pattern, consider speaking up in the moment if and when your boyfriend does something that significantly bothers you while also seeking to cultivate patience. This may sound goofy, but something as simple as breathing deeply or thinking “This is a person I care about and want to know better” when you find yourself getting reflexively frustrated might help you get through the moment and figure out if his goofiness is actually a dealbreaker for you.
Q. Wedding year: About a year and a half ago, one of my best friends from college proposed to his girlfriend. She was desperately waiting for it to happen and was elated when it finally came around. The only problem is she is literally commanding this is her wedding YEAR. Another friend in our crew got engaged a few months later, and she accused her of trying to steal her wedding year—and stopped talking to her until she got an apology and a promise she wouldn’t set a date for the same year she was getting married. I wish I could make this shit up. My SO and I quietly got engaged (we’re very laid-back people who tend not to shout about things, it would have happened the same way if our friend were acting sane) but I’m actually afraid to tell any of our friends as their wedding is in about six weeks, and I’m afraid she’s going to go nuts on me like she did our other friend. Should we keep it under wraps until after the wedding? Let word get around as it will, and deal with her if she decides to lose her marbles at us? I’m not very close with this girl, but my friendship with her fiancé is important to me so I don’t want something like this to cause a rift.
A: I don’t think it will be easy for you and your SO to pull off a full Frank Churchill–from-Emma for six weeks, although you’re welcome to try if you think it’s worth the skulking around. (Would you hide your engagement rings? Ask your family members to keep it a secret from your friends? The logistics of doing so sound pretty complicated!) Odds are, though, if this girl ever gets wind of when you two got engaged, even if it’s after her own wedding, she’ll find sufficient justification to blow up at you, too. If this woman decides to yell at you for becoming affianced, that’s a real opportunity for her fiancé to lovingly encourage her to amend her bad behavior. It may be worth experiencing a rift with him, no matter how close you two are, if he’s not willing to say or do anything when the woman he’s planning on marrying acts like an overbearing, self-centered jerk. Don’t go out of your way to engage with her, but do share your exciting news with your close friends. The whole “During the year of my wedding, everyone else’s life should be on hold” policy is not one you should consider capitulating to.
(Is it terrible that part of me wants to set your Bridezilla up with the couple that got engaged during someone else’s wedding reception we heard about a few weeks ago? That would make for an incredible double date.)
Q. Don’t like anyone: There’s a guy at my workplace who is … unpleasant. In addition to his socially unappealing but not to be helped issues—he has poor hygiene, bites his nails until they bleed, talks compulsively—he tells lies about people, is inappropriate with the younger members of staff, and I am pretty sure he groped a female member of staff when she drank too much at an office party. (He said she’d fallen and he caught her; I can’t say I’ve ever caught someone by the boobs, but it was decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Anyhow, basically if anyone wanted to pursue a complaint against him I’d support them. The office would be a nicer place to work if he was gone. However, I am not comfortable with the mockery and borderline bullying that people are engaging in. They laugh at him behind his back, encourage him in oversharing to mock him, invite him to coffee or drinks and then don’t turn up. He’s a horrible, borderline sex-pest, but this behavior is always deeply unpleasant to me. I just don’t know how to address it, or even if I should. (I’m in a different department but share the same office. So I don’t really have any authority here. I’m also too old to come into the line of fire for his unpleasant talk/flirting otherwise I’d have just pushed a complaint myself.)
A: Your best strategy is to stay out of it, I think, especially because none of the people involved report to you and you’re not in his department. If any of your colleagues are gossiping about him or making plans to set him up for social embarrassment with or near you, just say, “I have to get back to work,” or even, “Please don’t talk to me about this.” Then get back to your work, and give all of these deeply unpleasant people a wide berth. That said, if you ever directly witness any future acts of sexual harassment from this guy, you should report what you’ve seen. In the meantime, have you considered looking for a different job? All of your co-workers sound pretty awful, and I can’t imagine it’s much fun to work in an office with a bunch of people who all think they’re in the Tudor Court.
Q. How do you tell if you are being ghosted?: I met someone on Tinder a month and a half ago—our first date was about a month ago. We have gone out five or six times since then. We were texting nearly constantly (every few hours), with the texting easing up a bit over the last week (still daily but not constant throughout the day—this was post a sleepover where we finally did more than just kiss). On Friday, he said he felt sick and wasn’t sure about our date that night. I said I was busy most of the rest of the weekend, would he like to at least say a quick hello—that I missed him. He said yes, but then at the end of workday texted an apology about not feeling well (multiple “I’m sorrys” and “promise to make it up to you … can I have a raincheck?”) and needing to just rest. I said I understood and hoped he felt better, to which he wrote another “thanks … I really am sorry.” I replied again telling him not to worry about it. I have not heard from him since then. Is he ghosting me? What is the right thing to do? I liked him, up until now, far more than anyone I have dated since September. Where do I go from here?
A: In answer to your first question: Yes, probably. In answer to your second: Feel sad about it, try not to spend too much time speculating why he’s backed off because there is no good answer to why someone isn’t interested in continuing to date you, then go out on a date with someone else. Rinse and repeat until you find someone who’s as consistently excited about you (even after sleeping together) as you are about them.
Q. Re: Wedding year: I was going to suggest: 1) announce your engagement, 2) during the bridezilla’s wedding ceremony (that you are officiating), 3) while wearing the same color as the bridesmaids.
If you’re gonna go for a meltdown, try for the hat trick.
A: Don’t even stop there: Get an engagement ring designed in exactly the same style as hers.
Q. I didn’t include my rapist in “my number”: I was raped by an acquaintance about a year ago. The idea of dating was scary, but I met a great guy a couple months ago. He’s great—sweet, sensitive, treats me well, and listens attentively. Things are starting to get serious, so I finally told him about my sexual assault. He was quiet for a moment and then asked if I had included my rapist in “my number.” I was caught off-guard by the question but answered honestly and told him no. He’s been struggling with this ever since, and I’m not sure what to do. I don’t feel the previous guy should be included. Am I wrong?
A: Good God, no, you are not in the wrong—how horrifying that your boyfriend would make you question that for even a minute. The number of people you have slept with does not, cannot, and should not include sexual assault. You wouldn’t count being mugged on the street if you were listing all the times you’d donated to charity. The fact that your boyfriend asked in the first place, or that he’s “struggling” with the fact that you don’t consider being raped part of your relevant consensual sexual history is an absolute dealbreaker, and categorically cancels out the “listens attentively” and “treats me well” portion of the list of your boyfriend’s attributes. I’m so sorry he put you in that position. He is not a good or compassionate person, and you should break up with him.
Q. Selling the family house: My family has a lake house on a large set of land that was built by my great-grandfather. My husband and I bought out my sisters’ shares over 20 years ago and have gotten a generous offer on the property. The upkeep is too much for us now, and all the kids and their cousins don’t want to visit anymore. The last time anyone other than my husband and I visited was three years ago. We told the rest of the family we were selling and to come and claim any mementos before the summer ended. The hue and cry that rose up completely blindsided us. I had a niece calling us crying about wanting her wedding to be there. (She is not engaged.) One sister accused us of insulting our dead parents’ memory and took up a collection to buy back the property from us: It is $10,000 less than what we paid them over 20 years ago. My husband just wants to sell and thinks my sisters are crazy. The guilt is getting to me though. What should I do?
A: Sell the house and tell your siblings you are no longer accepting feedback (or below-market, 20-years-outdated bids) about your real estate decisions.
Q. Re: “I didn’t include my rapist in ‘my number’ ”: Seems likely that the BF doesn’t know how to talk about the LW being a rape victim. I doubt his response has to do with whether or not she included it in her number. He probably only asked that because he had no idea what he was supposed to say.
A: I want to grant people a lot of room to have no idea what to say in the face of something difficult or painful, but this exhibits a lack of basic common sense and decency. Stumbling over your words or saying “I’m not really sure what to say here” is one thing; saying, “Did you include your rapist on the list of sexual partners I’ve asked you to provide me with?” is another. It’s not something a reasonable, caring person might say in the process of figuring out a better response. It’s cruel, it’s warped, it places an unnecessary emotional burden on his girlfriend, and it elides the crucial, absolutely imperative distinction between consensual sex and an act of violence one has suffered.”
Q. Shirt etiquette: What’s an acceptable level of nudity post-workout? I think I can take my shirt off and put on a new one in the common areas, especially when changing rooms are at a premium. I wouldn’t have a problem with women doing so either. Thoughts?
A: Sure, go for it! Also, I will pass along your nonchalance on the matter to other women, although I think it will probably take more than one individual’s shirt-agnosticism to change the general attitude toward shirtless women in public places.