Dear Prudence

Don’t Thank Me

I’m a military officer, and I’m tired of being showered with gratitude by strangers.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I am a career senior military officer stationed in a U.S. city with a small but bustling base. When I’m in civilian clothes, I read as just another 40-something dad, but in uniform I’m the BIG DAMN HERO. I get thanked for my service to the point of distraction. I’ve had parents force their kids to come up to me to thank me in front of my own kids at school drop-off. People try to bring up the details of combat, which I’m not interested in talking about. The worst is at the grocery store. I often stop by on my way home to pick up ingredients for dinner, and for whatever reason the produce aisle seems to bring out the most obsessed veteran-hunters. Handshakes. Bro-fists and chest bumps. Crazy-uncle jingoism. And so many uninvited hugs.

Recently, while I was grabbing some produce off the shelves, a woman came up to me from behind and initiated a hug completely out of nowhere. A lost-in-thought combat veteran is not a good person to surprise. I spun around, took a step back, and asked the lady not to touch me. She backed away with tears in her eyes, and another woman who’d seen what happened gave me a dirty look. I told her that I was just as entitled to my personal space as she was and that my clothes weren’t an invitation for physical contact. Yesterday in the checkout line a woman approached me, looking nervous, then handed me a $100 gift card for the grocery store. I told her I didn’t want it and she should give it to someone who needs it (I get paid plenty), but she insisted. (I took the card and donated it to a local charity that serves refugees.)

I’ve had enough. I’ve thought about changing before I head home, but carrying civilian clothes to work in addition to gym clothes is a pain. Mostly I just want to be left alone. I don’t want any more hugs, but I don’t want to appear ungrateful. Is declining hugs and unwanted charity rude, making me a bad representative of the service? Or should I start packing dad clothes in my gym bag?

—No Thanks

Clear your conscience—there’s nothing rude about telling a stranger you don’t appreciate an unsolicited hug or turning down financial assistance you neither want nor need. In fact, it sounds like all of your responses to inappropriate behavior have been unfailingly polite. How unfortunate that the people around you have not responded in kind!

Since you don’t seem to need much help in politely deflecting unwanted contact, I think it’s better to focus on your goal of being left alone. I spoke to Mikki Kendall, a fellow veteran and previous Dear Prudence guest, who has experienced the same problem for years: “I hate being thanked, too,” she says. “Telling people they’re being weird and invasive when they get in your space should work, but often it doesn’t, so I would suggest he change clothes. I used to carry a clean set of soft clothes (sweatpants and blank T-shirt) for just that purpose.”

Multiple costume changes a day certainly isn’t ideal, but as long as you’ve got a gym bag already, throwing in a few extra items suitable for running into the grocery store might be the easiest option. And let this be a reminder to all my readers that if you feel inclined to thank a stranger for their work in the armed services, do so quickly, courteously, and with respect for the fact that they’re just trying to get through their own day. As always: Don’t hug strangers who aren’t expecting it! That’s just good manners.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

Three years ago I met a man who was wonderful, smart, kind, funny—and he loved me. He was the first person I’d been seriously involved with since I left an abusive relationship, and I pushed him away, which hurt him badly. Over the past few years I’ve seen him around occasionally, and I’d think about how much I missed him. A few months ago I saw his profile on a dating app, and we talked a little. I asked if he wanted to go for a walk. He said yes, to my amazement. We started spending time together again, and I realized, more than ever, what I had given up. He said he wanted to take things slowly, and I agreed.

Then he started bailing on me. We would make plans and he would cancel at the last minute or fail to show entirely. I told him that upset me, and he would do something to make it up. He hasn’t tried to have sex with me. After almost four months of this, he broke up with me tonight. I thought we were starting to get back on track, but we got into a fight about when we would see each other. He said I was just complaining, which set me off and I got sarcastic. And then he said he was done.

I don’t want us to be done. I love this man deeply. I know he is who I want to be with, and not just for now. I lost him once and I don’t want to waste any more time without him in my life. I don’t know what to do to fix things. I’m not sure he wants to. I don’t know what to do, or if there is anything I can do.

—Another Second Chance

There is not anything you can do! If it is helpful to you, I do not think you ever really had a second chance to begin with. It sounds like your ex was never really able to forgive you for breaking up with him in the first place, since from almost the start of your rekindled relationship he was distant, uncommunicative, and cold. If it hadn’t been this particular fight that ended things, I guarantee he would have found another excuse to be able to break up with you—because that’s what this go-round of your relationship has been for him, whether he was able to admit it to himself or not. He wanted to be able to punish and ultimately dump you in order to feel like he’d gotten his own back, and that’s exactly what he did. You say you’re “not sure he wants” to fix things between the two of you, but let’s look at his track record. In your sort-of relationship of the last four months, he’s declined to have sex with you, repeatedly failed to show up when he said he would, canceled your dates at the last minute and would “do something to make it up” that apparently didn’t involve actually going on dates with you. Also, he broke up with you. I think he was very sure of what he wanted—to hurt and then to leave you. It’s painful, and hard to accept, but the best way forward for you is to leave him alone, take care of yourself, and look for someone who’s both physically and emotionally available.

* * *

Dear Prudence: My boyfriend has a new bidet—and he’s stopped using toilet paper.

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Dear Prudence,

My kid is in preschool, and one of their friends has parents who just got divorced. I’m happily married, but the other child’s mother is attractive, and now seemingly much more so. I am pretty certain I would never act on anything (I have not touched another person in any intimate way since I met my wife and have no intention of doing so), but I can’t help fantasizing about my kid’s friend’s mom now that she’s single.

I haven’t ever met up with this other mom one on one and would have no reason to do so, and the extent of any texts is to set up play dates (without any double-entendre there). Do I have to do anything else to stay further away? Or can I enjoy a bit of fantasizing as long as I leave it at that?

—Just a Fantasy

Let’s play the tape forward here a bit! You say you’re “pretty certain” you would never act on your attraction to this woman, which is not the same thing as saying “I am committed to remaining faithful to my spouse.” You two know one another, she’s connected to your child’s social circle, she’s romantically available, and you have her phone number. She is not, I think, a prime candidate for safe, abstract fantasizing. That’s not to say you are a monster for finding her attractive, or that you are currently taking the first step down the inexorable road to Pound Town—merely that it would be better for you (and your marriage) if you did not try to see how close you can get to crossing a line with this woman before stumbling over. You list things you haven’t done in the past (you haven’t previously met up with her one on one and don’t have a reason to do so now) as if that has anything to do with the fact that you are currently more interested in her now that she’s single. That kind of slippery, passive thinking will not serve you well in making robustly marriage-strengthening choices. I advise you instead to think, “I will not meet up with her one on one, even if part of my brain presents me with plausibly deniable excuses to do so.”

It’s fine if she occasionally pops up in the Rolodex of your fantasies (I’ve got to come up with a more contemporary metaphorical filing system, I’ve never even seen a Rolodex), but don’t go out of your way to increase your contact with her, even if you’re able to convince yourself it’s purely for the sake of your child’s play date schedule or to “check in on her” after her divorce. That’s not to say you have to slap yourself on the wrist every time you think about her—turning her into “forbidden fruit” isn’t likely to diminish anything—but don’t seek to nurture or strengthen the fantasy, especially because the object thereof is so easy to contact.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I’m a relatively high-level manager at work and I’ve started to become friends with the woman who does payroll. We text, have lunch together, and generally spend a few minutes chatting every day. I’d like to become “real” friends outside of work, but I’m nervous because she knows I make about $100K a year more than she does. We’re both single moms with kids around the same age and have a lot in common, but I worry that she’ll judge me for making more money than she does.

Last month she helped me out on a huge project. I’m not in a position to secure a raise for her, so I bought her child a new summer wardrobe. I didn’t tell anyone at work, as I didn’t want to embarrass her, but she helped me so much I wanted to return the favor. If I ask her and her child to accompany me to the zoo or to a movie, is it OK to offer to pick up the tab for all of us? Is that being insulting?

—Unequal Reimbursement

I’m going to assume that you asked your co-worker before purchasing an entire summer wardrobe for her child and that she was comfortable with such a personal gift. If she was, then I think you two are certainly on the sort of emotional footing where a trip to the movies or the zoo with your kids would be a reasonable next step. If she wasn’t, then I think you should reconsider your approach—your gift was generous but not an appropriate response for helping out with a project at work, no matter how good a job she did. (You might have commended her to her own manager or written a note of praise for her personnel file. You still should, if you haven’t!)

That said, go ahead and ask if she wants to spend some more time with you. You don’t have to make a big deal out of the fact that you make more money than she does. Just make the offer—“I’d love it if you and Triticale could join Grasputin and me at the movies next Sunday. Are you available? My treat.”—and let her say yes or no. Remember, too, if you two do start spending more time together, that while you do make more money than she does, she’s hardly destitute—she has a job and has been caring for herself and her kid for years before you came along. You don’t have to make up for the fact that she knows you make more money than she does by paying for everything. Feel free to be generous, but don’t insist if she seems uncomfortable.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I rent a room in a house belonging to a wealthy attorney. When I moved in, he told me he’d be home maybe two days a week; his fiancée lives a bit closer to the city where he works. I met his fiancée a few weeks ago. There are pictures of the two of them, with children I believe to be from a previous relationship of hers, in the living room.

Recently I forgot my phone charger at work and went to ask my landlord if I could borrow his. When I went upstairs, I saw he was with a woman other than his fiancée. My suspicions were confirmed when I was forced to listen to them having sex for the next 30 minutes. (His bedroom is just above mine.) I tried to ignore it, but recently he had another woman over and the same thing happened.

He continues to mention his fiancée, and while I don’t want to judge (and I’m aware of the concept of open relationships), something tells me she doesn’t know. This, coupled with the fact that there are children involved, has me uneasy. I have a month-to-month lease. I like my living situation, and for what I’m paying, I’d be hard-pressed to find something safe in the same area. Do I mind my own business and hope his rendezvous don’t keep me awake in the future, or say something to my landlord and risk getting the boot?

—Tentative Tenant

I can’t foresee a version of events where you tell your landlord you’re uncomfortable with the fact that he’s cheating on his fiancée (my gut tells me you are probably right that this is not part of an above-board, communication-heavy polyamorous arrangement) and you get to keep your apartment. As a tenant, you don’t have much say over the fact that he sometimes has loud sex in his own home away from home, regardless of his choice of partner. The best possible course of action is to decline to pursue any future opportunities to hang out with your landlord or his deceived fiancée. If he continues to use this pied-à-terre as a home base for mistress auditions, you might want to start setting aside the money you’re saving on rent for another place. At a certain point, finding a room in a less convenient location or getting a couple of roommates might be preferable to starring in a 21st-century update of The Apartment.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I am a teacher at a private religious high school with a relatively formal staff culture. I have just become engaged to my long-term boyfriend (he’s quite a bit older than me), who used to teach at this school about three years ago. While he worked at the school, he was married. We started a relationship after he left the school and got divorced. None of the students are aware of our relationship and neither are most of the staff, with the exception of my close friends. Now that I’m wearing an engagement ring (plus I’m taking time off work for the wedding), I expect people, especially students, will want to know more details, starting with my fiancé’s name. Other teachers who have gotten engaged have gotten tons of questions and have enthusiastically discussed appropriate details with their students, so that’s OK. But my situation is a little more complicated. Do I tell them my fiancé is “Mr. Lopez,” whom they all know? Do I make up a fake name? His first name is pretty unusual, and I think they would guess who I was talking about if I used it. I’m worried it will be an unprofessional overshare if I admit I’m marrying their former teacher, whom they would remember as a much older married man. Am I overthinking this?

—Engaged Educator

It is never a bad idea to keep your private life and your work life separate, especially when working with children. There’s nothing wrong with how you and your boyfriend got together, but it’s complicated enough that you don’t want to spend a lot of your time at work correcting unsavory assumptions. You’re not obligated to go into detail if someone asks about your ring. Just smile, say, “Yes, I’m engaged, and I’m very happy—now let’s get back to Macbeth/reverse calculus/the Hubbert peak theory.”

The good news is that in a year (two or three at the outside), all the students who remember your fiancé will have graduated, and he will be a total stranger to everyone you teach.

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