Dear Prudence

Taboo Says Who

Prudie counsels a distantly related couple who resent having to justify or explain their consanguineous relationship.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail 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. Kissing cousins: I am in a relationship with someone who is distantly related to me. We are something like third cousins. We did not grow up together, met as adults, and were not “set up” or “arranged” by our families. These types of relationships are common and accepted in our family’s culture (as in many cultures), but we both grew up as second-generation Americans and are well aware that there is a lot of disgust associated with cousin relationships in this country, especially in the region where we live. Though we are not ashamed of our relationship, we don’t want to deal with the judgment of people who find it gross. How do we answer the inevitable question from friends and acquaintances about how we met, when the truth is it was at a family gathering, because we are technically family?

A: You can simply say you were introduced by a family member (or friends, if you’d prefer to remain nonspecific). There’s no reason to divulge the fact that you two are distantly related, because in no meaningful sense have you two ever had a familial relationship, nor do you share a close biological connection.

Q. Con man ex(?)-boyfriend: My close friend was seeing a man for many years who by her own telling treated her progressively worse. He was cold and secretive, excluded her from normal “girlfriend events,” borrowed large amounts of money, and was not upfront when he began seeing other women. She drew the line when she caught him with someone else and had her friends defriend him on social media, with which we happily complied. He was and is a con man and a terrible person. But now they’re back to working and hanging out together, and she is helping him through some health problems (real ones? Who knows!).

The problem is that since we refuse to spend time with him, my friend is often in the difficult position of choosing us or him for social events. Is it unfair for us to exclude him at our gatherings, depriving her of this person she cares about if she attends? And worse, she’s declined several invites lately; are we enabling him to isolate her? Her self-esteem is already in the garbage, despite being one of the brightest people I know.

A: That is such a difficult needle to thread. While I don’t think you should welcome him with open arms, I think you’re right to be concerned about social isolation, especially since your friend is already struggling to see herself as a person who deserves better treatment.

Can you invite her out more often for one-on-one activities like getting coffee or seeing a movie, or try to call her more often? Would you be willing to occasionally invite both of them to a party, bearing in mind that’s not the same thing as endorsing his behavior? Have you talked to your friend about what she might like? I think your best bet is to make sure she knows she has your support, that you believe he has not treated her as she deserves, but that she does not have to choose between being with him and being a part of your life.

Q. Am I too good a friend?: One of the few things I am very confident about is that I am a good friend. I always remember birthdays, I send postcards when I am away, I contact people often just to say “Hi,” etc. The issue I am running into is I feel a little unappreciated by a lot of the people I do this for.

I am naturally an extrovert, so things like arranging get-togethers come naturally to me, but I am feeling resentful that all of my “introvert” friends never return the efforts. I am not expecting a one-for-one, but on occasion it would be nice to feel like they want to see me and are not just hanging out because I am the only one who can put something together.

I haven’t confronted any of them about this because I am scared of what could happen, but in the days of social media it is hard to see photos of them at parties and not want to post, “Who put this together since I was not invited? Can I get on the list for next time?” Please help.

A: Don’t “confront” your friends for failing to reciprocate. Be honest and ask them for what you want. Sometimes we assume that if we have to ask our friends to pay attention to us, to make time for us, to plan to see us, that it’s somehow less “authentic” than if they had spontaneously anticipated our needs. That is not true.

Tell your friends you miss them, you’re feeling a little left out, and it would mean a great deal to you if they would initiate plans to get together. If all the postcard-sending and birthday-managing is starting to weigh you down, consider scaling back. That doesn’t mean you have to become a bean-counter who tallies every single act of friendship and doesn’t make a move until someone moves a point ahead. It just means that you can take stock of what seems to be working for you, what doesn’t, what feels meaningful, and what just feels like unappreciated busywork.

Q. Driven crazy?: I was laid off about five months ago from a horrible law firm. I’m now working part-time doing research and writing that I love, but it’s really my husband’s job that is paying the bills. We’re not touching our savings, but we’re not able to put anything more into it either. I now have an unusual job opportunity as a hearing officer who decides whether hospitals have sufficient reason to put psychiatric holds on patients. It sounds interesting, but I’m worried it’s exactly wrong for an introvert like me: hours of travel for face-to-face and back-to-back contested meetings with often-dire consequences for the patients. Just writing that sounds exhausting and kinda miserable. It is part-time, so I can keep doing the work that I like, but it may end up limiting the amount of that work that I can take on. It’s also a regular paycheck. I’m worried it would make me an unhappy and always-tired person again, but I can’t see how I can say no. Where is the line for saying no to a job?

A: If you think odds are good that within three months you’ll either quit the job or go completely mad, then I think you have a good reason to decline to pursue the opportunity. You should talk the pros and cons over with your partner, of course, but you still have your savings and you’re not currently in dire straits or on the cusp of a financial emergency. You’re able to pay your bills, your husband’s job is stable, and you yourself are already working part-time.

If it were simply a dull-sounding job, you might be willing to bite the bullet and get that paycheck, but the mere prospect of the work involved makes you feel drained and miserable, which suggests that you’re not going to be able to do it for very long (nor would you be able to serve your patients well). Keep looking for something that, at the very least, sounds like something you could plausibly get through on a daily basis.

Q. Obligated to reveal I’m transgender?: I’m a trans woman who is still publicly presenting male, as my current workplace is not a safe place to start living full-time as a woman. A former co-worker and friend would like to start a business partnership with me. Am I obligated to come out to him before starting a business partnership, since it is very likely I will eventually go full-time (as soon as I can afford to leave my current employer)? He has shown some very homophobic behaviors in the past, so it seems likely he will not be accepting.

A: You are not obligated to come out to him, but you do have the right to consider your own safety, job security, and well-being before making any decisions. If you think there might be another, better opportunity for you to change jobs without having to deal with a likely transphobic business partner, you should feel free to take another job elsewhere. If you’d rather know now whether he’s capable of accepting the fact that you’re transgender before embarking on a new professional venture together, then you might wish to come out sooner rather than later. If you prefer not to disclose at all and want to find a way to work remotely or otherwise keep him at arm’s length (though that may not be feasible), you can do that too. Whatever you decide, your only obligation is to yourself and your own safety. You do not owe anyone else information about your gender.

Q. What do I say?: My daughter and son-in-law are going through a rough patch in their marriage. I work in the same industry as my son-in-law and am likely to see him at an event this weekend. If I bump into him, what on earth do I say?

A: Greet him politely and professionally, and leave it at that. A work event is no place to discuss his marital difficulties.

Q. Conflicted about education: I’m an atheist and have been a county employee for 11 years. I just finished my bachelor’s and have now started a master’s program that I receive a large discount on as a county employee. The problem is that it’s a religious school.

The county promotes the school endlessly—we constantly get emails encouraging us to sign up and take advantage of the employee discount. I was told during the admissions process that there was no issue with nonreligious students attending the school, that it was inclusive and open to all who applied. But I just started my first week, and that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The curriculum is very heavily religious, which makes me feel super out of place and gives me concern that we won’t be focusing enough on actual educational material. The first day, the class wasted an hour discussing talking snakes and magic apples in an attempt to shoehorn attachment theory in with the Adam and Eve story, instead of discussing the textbook chapters we read to prepare for class.

I feel very conflicted about attending this school and about the fact that a government agency is promoting it as something that anyone should be able to attend, but the school is respected in the area, has the only schedule that works with my employment schedule, and allows the county discount program. I’m afraid that if I complain, I’ll either get kicked out of the school, get the county program taken away from everyone else, or both. What should I do?

A: If your school does not require students to sign a statement of faith, then it’s unlikely you will be kicked out either for being an atheist or for declining to participate in religious discussions. That said, it’s also unlikely that complaining about the curriculum’s focus on religious matters will result in serious or long-term change, given that it is a religious institution. The fact that it’s a well-respected school and the schedule is convenient aren’t the only factors you should consider—ask yourself if the school seems capable of offering you the sort of education that would actually benefit you and be of lasting value. It may be better to withdraw now, and research other alternatives, than to force yourself to try to stick it out for several years. You can—and certainly have the right to—discuss whether governmental promotion of a religious institution is beneficial (or even legal) at your workplace.

Q. Re: Am I too good a friend?: The pics on social media could easily be from events that were planned by another good planner among their group of friends, not events that they planned and didn’t invite you to.

A: It’s always good to remember that it’s so easy to assume conscious, malicious intent when so often happenstance, chance, and simply not knowing what someone else wants from you are the likeliest explanations.

Q. Unmentionables: I live in a row of townhouses and get along pretty well with my neighbors. Last week I was doing some laundry and noticed a pair of briefs next to our boundary fence that weren’t anyone in my household’s. I tossed them back over the fence in the general direction of the clothesline. My neighbor was in their courtyard and passive aggressively started (loudly) muttering how rude I am. The neighbors two down have found out and have told us there’s been a request that we get uninvited to our street barbecue. I find it a bit ridiculous; I inadvertently embarrassed the neighbor in an attempt to be helpful. Should I say something, or just wait for it to blow over and skip the barbecue that I was ambivalent about in the first place?

A: If you don’t want to go to the barbecue, give yourself the gift of not going. It might have been slightly more correct to have asked your neighbor, since they were already outside, whether the briefs in question were theirs, but everyone has the right to remove underwear from their home that isn’t theirs. The rudeness was your neighbor’s, and you don’t have to worry about apologizing for not leaving their underwear on your lawn.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for your robust and hearty participation, goodfellows. See you all next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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