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 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. Worried about my bedroom skills: I got out of a long-term relationship a few months ago, and am starting to get back on the dating scene. Not looking for anything serious at this point, just casually dating. My problem is that my ex, during an intimate moment and in a fit of frustration, once told me that I was only “OK, not great” in bed. Obviously, this was hurtful, and it made me feel very unattractive. I nearly broke up with him over it, but we talked it through, chose to stay together, and continued having regular sex. I didn’t think about it much for the remainder of our relationship. Now that I am dating again, I can’t stop thinking about it. Am I bad in bed? Am I enthusiastic enough? Too enthusiastic? I know my ex was a jerk for not finding a more tactful way to communicate his needs, but this is seriously messing with my confidence. How can I feel like I’m a good lover? How do I get my ex’s voice out of my head?
A: Anyone who tells a partner they’re “OK, not great” in bed—as if there were a single, objective way to be “great” in bed—is being a jerk. Your ex was being a jerk. That’s not to say there aren’t certain qualities like attentiveness, confidence, vulnerability, and enthusiasm that are valuable to, you know, bring to the sex table (sex table? sure), but if your ex wanted something different from you in bed, it was incumbent on him to tell you what he wanted, not to offer you an evaluation of your overall status as a lover. It’s hard to let go of a voice in your head that says, “My ex knows the truth about me, which is that I am an objectively bad lover, and everyone else is just too polite to say anything,” but it’s just that: a voice. It’s not the Voice of Truth.
If you want to know what future partners like in a lover, you can absolutely ask them! Don’t anxiously ask them to rate you, of course, but ask them to talk to you about what they like and what they don’t. Sex is different with every new partner, and the things your ex wanted aren’t necessarily reflective of what someone else might be looking for.
Q. “Friend” committed sexual assault on a stranger. What do I do now?: I know that a guy in my friend group sexually assaulted a woman at a mutual friend’s wedding. He’s always been fairly disrespectful toward women and is the kind of guy who sympathizes with the Cosbys and Weinsteins because their careers have been “ruined” by sexual assault allegations. I’ve never much cared for him, and I’m not surprised this happened—in fact I’d be surprised if it’s the first time—but I’m still horrified and feel like I can’t be around him anymore. A few other people in the group know as well, but mostly just shrug it off as, “That’s just Jeff, we have to keep an eye on him.”
I’m angry at him for his behavior and for facing zero consequences. I’m angry at my friends for not sharing my feelings and cutting him out of our lives. No one else even sees a need to avoid him! I don’t know how to approach anyone about it without causing a giant fight, and I feel like I’m spending so much of my own energy being angry about it. There’s so many stories about women being sexually assaulted (I have my own), what do I do when I know the assaulter?
A: I’m so sorry that you’re dealing with this. You say that you’re dealing with your own feelings about assault resurfacing in the wake of a renewed public conversation about the topic, so I understand that you want to prioritize your own well-being right now, and that’s absolutely fine. But if you know Jeff to have recently committed sexual assault (not only that, but that you yourself are not surprised that he has done it, which suggests that he has behaved quite badly many times in the past and gotten away with it), and if he has experienced zero social, legal, or relational consequences, then I think you’re right to say you can’t be around him anymore. I think you should not be around him anymore, and if your friends not only don’t see a problem in the fact that he’s escaped justice, but don’t even deem it necessary to stop hanging out with him like nothing happened—then those friends are not good people.
If the idea of a huge fight drains you of energy, you don’t have to engage for a long time. You can just say, “I can’t possibly be around Jeff knowing what I know now, and I can’t condone your continued friendship with him,” and take your leave. Focus your time and energy on the friends in your life who don’t go out of their way to enable men who commit sexual assault.
Q. Coming out at work: I’ve been dating my girlfriend for a little more than three years. We had been together for about a year before I started a new job two years ago. The problem is that my boss thinks I have a boyfriend, not a girlfriend. The company is extremely small—only seven to 10 people—and there is no HR department. My girlfriend and I are planning to get engaged within the next year, and I’m stressing about how to tell my boss that I’ve been dating a girl all along—not a boy. I’m worried about potentially homophobic reactions, as well as how this revelation will reflect upon my character—namely that I’ve been lying about this for more than two years now. Help!
A: If you’re worried about homophobic reactions at work and you don’t have an HR department, then I think you might want to consider looking for jobs at a different company. That’s not going to happen immediately, I understand; jobs aren’t always easy to come by, but I don’t think you have a lot of recourse at your current situation if your boss ends up being as homophobic as you fear. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think it says anything about your character that you’ve remained strategically closeted at work for fear of reprisal; that’s not a matter of being insufficiently honest, that’s a matter of trying to make sure you don’t get fired or thrown into a deeply unpleasant work environment.) If you don’t trust your boss to stay professional upon learning you’re dating or engaged to a woman, then you have every right to keep that information to yourself.
Q. College: My husband is 20 years older than me and we have a 6-year-old daughter together. My stepchildren are all married and had children at very young ages—the grandchildren are older than my daughter. My relationship with my stepchildren has mostly been civil and respectable as I came into their lives when they were adults. At a recent family gathering, the topic of the cost of college came up and my stepdaughter (mother of five) blithely said she didn’t have to worry because “Daddy would take care of it.” My husband paid for all his children’s college and a few of their graduate schools but doesn’t make nearly as much as he used to. He will be looking at retirement in a few years and most of our income is going to come from me. I am not worried about providing for our daughter—but one girl is not the same as 10 grandchildren.
There are saving bonds for the grandchildren and that is it, at least on our end. I told my stepdaughter that. Things got ugly—she accused me of stealing and hiding the money. When my husband told her, no, he never had plans to pay for college and never told her he would, everything exploded. Many awful things were said and half were directed at me.
It came out that my stepdaughter and one of her brothers never saved a penny for their children’s education and are now panicking. They have said they aren’t coming over for the holidays because of it and posted an ugly accusation on Facebook.
I am terrified they are going to poison the grandchildren against us. My husband is upset, hurt, and disappointed—he is only speaking with two of his children now. The holidays are ruined. Part of me wonders if this is my fault and if it could have been avoided. I told the truth to my stepchildren and it has blown up. Should I do anything? Is there anything I could have done?
A: It would have been better to let your husband handle the conversation with his children about paying for the grandchildren’s college, but aside from that, I don’t think there’s much responsibility you can take for your stepchildren’s outburst. If your husband never planned or promised to pay for his grandchildren’s college educations (a perfectly reasonable stance for him to take!), then that’s that—his children can throw as many fits as they like, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve made some pretty unreasonable assumptions and are going to have to readjust to reality.
The theme of today (and a partial theme of at least the next month or two of columns, I’m afraid) is going to be this: It is absolutely fine if the holidays get “ruined.” Being angry and spending time apart is, in fact, not “ruining” anything at all. It’s part of being in a family. Life is long, and the holidays come every year, and they’re not some objective barometer of whether one is a good person or loves their family. They’re just holidays.
Your husband is right to hold a firm limit here, and I hope that eventually he’s able to have more rational conversations with his children about money and expectations and making assumptions, but in the meantime there’s not much you can or should do to try to manage his children’s feelings. Focus on making plans with your husband and your daughter for the holidays, and enjoy yourself as much as you can.
Q. Holiday gift: We have to attend a pre-holiday party with the boss of my wife. He is fairly well off and a bit of a wine/food snob. We are unsure of what to bring. I have a great knowledge of wine and offered to bring a bottle from my collection, but we were informed he makes fun of people who do because no one yet has brought him a bottle of his caliber. Any ideas?
A: Flowers. Don’t cast your perfectly good wine bottles before swine.
Q. Rewriting the chivalric code: I’m a firm believer that chivalry is not dead, it’s just expanding to accommodate all people, regardless of gender. I believe that no matter the gender of the holder or the pedestrian, polite people hold the door open for anyone immediately behind them. As a woman who occasionally holds the door open for men, I’ve seen huge smiles, enthusiastic thank-yous, awkward faces, no response at all, and once, a man halfway through the door turning on his heel to go around behind me and hold the door open for me.
But last week I was in a politeness calamity that I cannot figure out. I was seated in a room with a man who stood to call another man into the room, whom I had never met. I know traditional politeness and gender roles demand that a man stand if a lady enters the room. But where that situation is so dependent on traditional gender roles, it felt like if I stood to greet him, I’d be saying something negative about his masculinity.
I appreciate when men stand when I enter the room, but I know I’m a bit eccentric when it comes to courtesy. Would it be insulting to stand to greet a man when he comes into a room? It just feels so rude to sit.
A: I think you are overthinking this one! Generally when one makes a new acquaintance, one shakes hands, and it’s perfectly polite to stand up in order to shake hands the better.
Q. Re: Coming out at work: If you actively lied and said you had a boyfriend, why can’t you just “break up” with the boyfriend and “start” dating a girlfriend? That way you don’t have to admit you lied but get to start telling the truth. Just spin a bigger web.
A: Oh, don’t do this.
Q. Moving anxieties: I’m 24 years old, working and going to school full time. I have a good amount of money saved up from living at home, but I can’t live here forever and have decided to move out. I would have moved out earlier, but after high school my depression got overwhelming and I could barely take care of myself, so I’ve only now been able to work and go to school. My mother and grandmother have all but had heart attacks at the mere mention of my moving out. My grandmother is convinced every apartment I look at is unsafe and seems to think I’ll be robbed or worse the moment I get the keys to my new place. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be satisfied unless I had a police officer living in my house 24/7, and even then I’m not too sure. My mother, meanwhile, is convinced I’ll be broke and begging at their door for money after a few months of “partying,” despite the fact that I hate parties and have been paying most of my bills since I first started working. I’ve even made a budget to show her I could actually afford to live on my own and nothing short of a major, debilitating illness would ruin me.
Despite all this, I still plan to move out. I would like to know if there’s anything else I can do to calm them down and show them that I’m a big girl now and able to live on my own. I’m at the end of my rope with the two of them, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m sure they’d be calling the police for “wellness checks” when I don’t answer my phone before the second ring, I’d already be out of here.
A: I think your plan is a good one. Keep saving your money and looking for apartments—I can’t imagine it’s good for your mental health to continue living with people who are convinced you’re incapable of taking care of yourself. I hope very much that they do not attempt to call in a “wellness check,” but it’s definitely a sign that you need a lot of time and space away from them. You don’t need to convince them that you’re doing the right thing. Frankly, it sounds like nothing will convince them that you’re doing the right thing. Continue making your plans and don’t spend any of your time trying to get your mother and grandmother to approve of them—you simply don’t need them to.
Q. Wedding: My husband and I got immediately married after it came out his father had a terminal form of cancer and only had weeks to live. We only had just gotten engaged and were planning our wedding. We flew my parents in for the weekend and got married with about 15 people present, most of them his family. That was a year ago. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but I really regret not having the wedding I wanted with all my friends and family there. Is it tacky to want do it again?
My wedding was very much overshadowed by the circumstances of my father-in-law and I would like to have happier memories made. Is a renewal of our vows OK? Or a late reception? I never got a bridal shower, bachelorette party, or a dance with my father at my wedding. We never had a honeymoon. I feel awful feeling this way when my husband lost his father and I haven’t voiced this to anyone. Should I bring it up, or it is too tacky?
A: I don’t know if “tacky” is a particularly worthwhile word here. Who cares if something is tacky? Tacky is great; just ask John Waters. If you would like to take a honeymoon with your husband, then you can and should certainly bring it up with him. Plenty of couples take delayed honeymoons. It may not be financially and logistically feasible to put together an entire second wedding, but you can certainly host a delayed reception. A bridal shower and bachelorette party might not be doable after the fact, but if you want to have a party and celebrate your wedding with the people who couldn’t make it the first time around, you can certainly talk to your husband about the idea.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Remember, a lot of you have local elections Tuesday, so don’t forget to find your local polling place and vote.