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.)
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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone. Nothing beats starting out the week with a series of moral quandaries! Let’s dive in.
Q. Troubled twin: I am writing as a final act of desperation. For a year now, I have had very strong romantic feelings for one of my friends. She is smart, engaging to be around, caring—I have never felt quite like this about any crushes I’ve had before. The issue: She has been dating my twin sister for about a year now.
There are quite a few layers to this. We are all women, and this is the first time I have had feelings for any woman—however, they are also a good deal stronger than feelings that I have had in the past for men, which I was always able to brush off as being a simple crush. We all grew up together and I’ve always felt we had a strong connection, but it was only months before they began dating that I began to consider my feelings as more than a friendship. Now, I am desperate to get over them but find myself at a loss.
I have tried everything. I have gone on dates with other people (of both genders, to see if that was the issue—it didn’t help). I have tried hanging out with them together to show myself how happy they are together. When that didn’t work, I hoped the semester that I was taking abroad would do the trick, but the feelings didn’t abate. I’ve picked up other hobbies, tried limited contact instead of going cold turkey, made new friends, written down my feelings extensively, and nothing helps! The only avenue I can think of at this point is therapy, which I have neither the time nor money for.
I love my sister and have no interest in straining our relationship, or her relationship with this woman, which is healthy and happy. Equally, I refuse to burden either of them with this crush that has, frankly, gotten wildly out of control—it would trouble both of them to know they’re hurting me. Do you think therapy is my only option at this point? I keep hoping it might go away, and instead just find myself obsessing over it more every time I try to move on. I keep wondering why she picked my twin instead of me. It’s unhealthy and I just want to move on!
A: I share your feeling that therapy sounds like a very good idea. You may qualify for low-cost services depending on your income, or you might try remote therapy—there’s a number of Skype- or phone-based providers these days—which is also cheaper than in-person sessions. If even that seems prohibitively expensive, you might consider attending a support group in your area like CoDA. Meetings are free, some are available online, and “the only requirement for membership is a desire for healthy and loving relationships.”
Your decision not to share this with your sister or her girlfriend is, I think, a wise one, and while I can’t promise that this is going to go away overnight, I do think that with therapeutic work and assistance you will find things get better. The story of your life is not going to be a George Strait song, where you are desperately in love with your sister’s girlfriend forever. You’re moving in the right direction; results might take a while, but they will come.
Q. Out of the house: My husband and I have been together for a decade but for various monetary reasons are not legally wed. I have stayed out of his relationship with his daughter “Jessica.” I don’t think highly of her—she has been given every advantage in life and squandered it.
She got pregnant in college and failed out (we paid for that), and managed to wreck her car (that her mother gave her). I thought she had finally grown up after she met and married “Kyle.” He works full-time and even adopted her son, but doesn’t make a lot of money. My husband sold his house and moved in with me four years ago. Our retirement plans were for both of us to keep working until now, then sell my house and buy a condo down South. A year ago in a moment of complete stupidity, I agreed to let Kyle, Jessica, and her son move into our house to save money so Jessica could go to school to become a stylist. I even switched my work schedule around so I could help with child care. Only now Jessica has announced she is pregnant and plans to be a stay-at-home mom—in our home, of course, since they were barely scraping by before.
My husband and I keep fighting about this. I want to stick to our agreement and timetable, while Jessica uses the grandchildren as a guilt card to sway her father. My husband wants to wait a few more years, but I know as soon as this baby is walking and talking, there will be another one and another. I refuse to spend my retirement being the live-in help in my own home (I do the majority of the housework and cooking).
I have said we could get them an apartment and pay for a few months rent, but you’d think I was throwing them out in the cold on Christmas. I am tired of this and am this close to giving the ultimatum of “I am selling the house and moving, come if you like or not.” I love my husband, but I am tired of being cast into the role of villain because I think a 24-year-old married mother should be able to stand on her own feet.
What should I do? I am at my wit’s end here.
A: I think your ultimatum sounds like a necessary one, if you are willing to stick to it. I’ll also throw in a plug for counseling (couples’ counseling, if your husband is open to coming with you, and individually if not) to help you figure out how best to define and communicate your limits.
But if your husband wants you to sign up for another “few years” (that’s fairly vague!) of full-time cooking and cleaning for a household of five or more, and you don’t want to, then at some point you have to resign from the job you’ve been unwillingly conscripted to do. If you two have fought about this repeatedly, and he’s refused to budge or agree on a move-out date—or at the very least take up the cooking and cleaning duties himself—then you’re already at an impasse. All you have to do is acknowledge it.
Q. Alt-right former friend: My “aunt Rhonda,” my mom’s best friend who lives several states away, has recently come out as an avid member of the alt-right movement, along with the rest of her family. This was shocking, considering they seemed to be otherwise for years. Her eldest son, “Tom,” and I were also friends, but now he’s turned out to be the biggest fanatic of the bunch, and the one who radicalized the rest. His Facebook posts and comments are appalling: racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and overall hateful. I’ve tried unfollowing him, but it’s not enough. I am desperate to block him (or, at least, unfriend him), as I’m disgusted at myself for keeping him as my “friend,” even if it’s just on Facebook. (We never discussed it, but we simply stopped talking after he publicly revealed his true ideology.)
At the same time, I don’t want to hurt my mom and Rhonda’s decades-old friendship, which has somehow survived the blow. What should I do? I am desperate to block him and finally rid myself of this horrible person, but at the same time, I’d feel guilty if my mom lost a friend over me (even one I now loathe).
A: “Not losing a friend” is not always the highest possible good; in your mother’s case, “total friend retention” at the expense of honesty—and, you know, decency—is not a desirable outcome.
Regardless of what happens between your mother and Rhonda, the choice in front of you is not how to manage their relationship, but whether you have a moral obligation to say anything to a man you once considered a friend who has started saying racist, misogynistic, xenophobic things on a daily basis. I believe that you do. Say something. Make it clear you profoundly object to his worldview. Whether you decide to block him or not, whether you two have an argument about it or simply never talk again, is less important than the fact that you cannot let your entire response to his behavior be silence.
If as a result of your saying something to Tom, your mother’s friendship with Rhonda does not survive, that is neither your fault nor your concern. If one of Rhonda’s preconditions for friendship is that “all of my friends’ children must tacitly encourage my son’s racism and sexism,” then the price she is asking of your mother is too high, and not worth paying.
Q. Letters from dying husband: My wife and I were student athletes who met and married after getting MBAs. For 32 years we have lived an active, health conscious, monogamous life together. Roughly 60 days after our 31st anniversary I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With treatments and luck, I have 12 to 24 months. We both know what reality is.
Short of bringing a date to my funeral, I want her to move on and find someone that makes her happy. Until she is ready to move on I would like to send her letters and flowers after I’m gone, on her birthday, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, etc. I can set this in motion with my contacts and lawyers. But … I don’t want to be a ghost that guilts her into not moving on. What is right here?
A: I’m so sorry about your diagnosis. I don’t know what’s right for you and your wife—what might seem like a lovely reminder to one person might feel overwhelming and painful to another—so I can’t tell you whether you should or shouldn’t set up this service.
If you feel up to it, I think it might be wise to ask her what she thinks of the idea, bearing in mind that you’re both in the middle of dealing with a great deal of grief and stress. If part of you worries about overwhelming her, you might want to choose one date a year (rather than your anniversary, her birthday, and other holidays) to send flowers or a letter. Whatever you choose to do afterward may not be perfect or easy, but there are no perfect or easy options here. Mostly, I think, you should focus on spending time together now, and on letting her know just how much you love her while you still can.
Q. Cheapskate: I live in a cul-de-sac with several families the same age as my two girls. We all do mutual birthdays and celebrations, except for “Lydia.” Lydia has five children and on most days lets them run wild and unsupervised, and the kids barge in on neighbors. I have bit my tongue over having several of Lydia’s children (my youngest is friends with two of them) show up at my back door asking for dinner this summer. I have brought it up with Lydia, only to have her dismiss it.
Lydia also has the remarkable tendency to forget to send enough money for the kids during trips to the water park or ice rink. It will be enough to cover the ticket but nothing for food or drinks, which I then cover out of my own pocket.
Last week, we had my daughter’s seventh birthday party with food and a bouncy house. All five of her children descended and proceeded to stuff their faces. The oldest two are in their teens. The gift they so thoughtfully brought was a dirty teddy bear stuffed in a brown paper bag. Lydia didn’t even bother to wash it.
I don’t want to cause a feud or keep my daughter from playing with these kids, but I am done with Lydia. My older daughter’s birthday is this month, and I don’t want a repeat. Can you help me?
A: My first reaction to your letter is to feel absolutely terrible for Lydia’s children. Of course it’s frustrating to have five unsupervised kids, some of them significantly older than your own, running hog wild over your daughter’s birthday party, but it sounds like their parents (is their father in the picture?) are failing to care for and provide for them. The description of the present they brought your daughter was particularly heartbreaking. Kids don’t like standing out, and they certainly don’t bring a dirty, secondhand present because they’re jerks or indifferent—it’s possible that that was the nicest thing in the house they could find. It says something about the kind of gifts they get.
I imagine, too, the reason that they show up some nights at your back door asking for dinner is not because they enjoy disrupting your life, but because they are hungry, and no one else is feeding them. Many kids experience increased food scarcity during the summertime, when they’re out of school and don’t receive the lunches and sometimes breakfasts they get during the school year.
That’s not to say that you don’t have a right to be frustrated with Lydia, or that you’re obligated to take on part-time parenting duties for a family of five—merely that I hope you can see these children for what they are, which is not fully formed adults who enjoy inconveniencing you, but a group of kids (even the teenagers) who are being neglected. If you don’t want to cover all five of their expenses on group outings, that’s completely understandable, and it’s absolutely fine for you to say no to Lydia if and when she asks your kids to accompany you to the movies or the water park. But think of their welfare first—if they seem underfed, neglected, confused, or hurt then I think you should consider carefully about reporting their condition to child protective services. In the meantime, extend as much grace toward them as you possibly can. They’re going to need it.
Q. Best friend’s wife is angry with me: I’m from another country and only have a few friends here. My friendship with “John” is really important to me. I recently broke up with my longtime girlfriend and he has been here for me a lot. John, another friend, and I have a group chat and the other friend sent some porn images as a joke, and I responded with some too. John just ignored it but doesn’t have an issue. John’s wife has always been really warm and kind to me. I saw her at an event and she didn’t greet me in her normal way. She pretty much waved without smiling. I later asked her if she was OK and she said, “If you are sending porn to my husband I feel weird around you,” and walked away. What should I do now?
A: I’m not sure that John didn’t have an issue with the conversation! If he did not respond to your “porn jokes,” and if he told his wife about it, then that would strongly suggest he didn’t think it was funny.
This is an excellent opportunity to check in with him, apologize for making him uncomfortable, and assure him that you won’t do it again. (You can also ask if he thinks it would help for you to speak to his wife, but that may not be necessary, depending on how well you know her, and whether you consider her a friend as well.) Everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to off-color jokes, and while you don’t have to beat yourself up for crossing a line, a quick check-in and apology are totally appropriate.
Q. Ex-husband got friends in the divorce: My question is about how long to hang on. My ex-husband and I got along great and still hung in the same group until he got married again and he and/or his wife decided I had to go. Although I had usually been the one to throw parties and invited everyone, the ex and wife then began to do so without inviting me.
I admit I would have liked friends to balk at this, since we had been friends going back more than 20 years, but instead I’m not included in anything. I still invite others, though, and the friends will come to my gatherings without any attempt to see me any other time. So clearly it’s over, but what’s the best way to put it behind me? There’s something that still feels childish about no longer including them.
A: Are you being excluded from “everything” in your social circle, or merely from the parties that your ex-husband and his wife have been throwing? Because if it’s the former, you can certainly speak to your friends about the sudden change in the way they treat you. If it’s the latter, while unpleasant, it’s not necessarily unreasonable. You are still free to throw parties and to invite your friends—you can even continue to invite your ex and his new wife if you feel like being magnanimous.
The fact that you say, “Although I had usually been the one to throw parties … the ex and his wife then began to” suggests to me that it may be the latter. Your ex, while single, may not have felt especially interested in hosting, but now that he’s partnered again, may want to throw more parties than he used to. This is fine! If your friends attend his parties when he throws them, and attend yours when you throw them, then they’re not doing anything wrong.
It is, you’re quite right, a shame that he was able to be perfectly friendly with you before he got remarried and now seems to want to excise you from his contacts list. If you want to try to open the topic—since you two have gotten on so well in the past—you might let him know that he and his new wife are always welcome at your parties, and while you understand the three of you may never be an inseparable team, you hope you can all at least get along. If you don’t think that’s worth the risk, then you can privately mourn the loss of your friendship with him and then get back to scheduling events you enjoy.
Q. Re: Out of the house: Get out. Get out. Get out. Jessica is getting free rent and child care out of the letter writer. She has gotten the goose and the gravy and no amount of gentle support is going to pry it from her hands.
I saw it happen to my own sister. My niece got pregnant and dropped out of school, and my sister works full time and basically raises the kids. It was only supposed to last for a “few years.” That was over 12 years ago. Baby No. 1 is in middle school and my niece is pregnant with baby No. 5. Retirement is a long ago dream and my sister is still singing the same old refrain. Set a date and save yourself.
A: We can’t perfectly predict the future, of course, but it certainly doesn’t seem likely that Jessica is going to suddenly decide that she’s tired of what she’s getting out of the situation and pursue independence. Letter writer, if that’s not a vision of the future you want, then you’re going to have to be the one who says no and takes action.