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.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning! Let’s get chatting.
Q. Is he insensitive? Or merely conservative?: My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and he is loving, caring, and dedicated. He’s in the medical field and enjoys helping his patients. Most of the time, I can see myself marrying him and being happy, but some things he says politically make me nervous, and I’m worried that he’s too uncaring about other people’s situations. He doesn’t have a problem with Roy Moore being a senator because “he hasn’t been convicted.” He seems to judge sexual harassment victims for not coming forward earlier and doesn’t understand why some wouldn’t.
I’m a politically involved liberal, and he’s not, so I know he doesn’t think a lot about these topics and can be thrown off. Sometimes he will also say anything to end a fight. How can I tell if he’s just more conservative than me? Or if he’s just just defensive (I admittedly come on really strong when I question him)? What is a character problem I should be concerned about? I love him, but he’s making me nervous.
A: If your boyfriend’s stance on what kind of person should hold elected office is “Roy Moore is fine by me, as long as he hasn’t been convicted of sexually assaulting underage girls,” then he is not defensive, or thrown off, or someone who hasn’t spent enough time thinking about these topics. He’s a bad person.
It’s possible for someone to be loving, caring, and dedicated to their partner, to work hard at their job, and to hold beliefs that are so repugnant that the good does not outweigh the bad. You should be more than “nervous” that your boyfriend thinks the only question he needs to consider about a man accused of sexual assault by five different women is “Has he been convicted?” Pay attention to this nervousness—it’s your gut trying to tell you that this man is not safe to be around, that if you ever experienced sexual harassment, assault, or violence, he would not believe or help you. He is telling you everything you need to know about his character. Listen, and leave him.
Q. Dye job: Is it ever acceptable to make a request about your partner’s appearance? I would never comment on something like weight or unchangeable physical characteristics (nor would I want to—I think my wife is beautiful). But what about easily changeable things? My wife has recently stopped coloring her hair, so now she is all gray. We are in our 30s. Would I be a jerk if I asked her to go back to the dye job?
A: It’s not beyond the pale of acceptable things to say to one’s partner, but it’s also possible that you might hurt your wife’s feelings, or that she’ll say no to your request. If you two can typically have productive conversations about fraught topics like personal appearance comfortably and affectionately, then you might consider bringing it up. You can say that you really liked the color she used to dye her hair, and if she ever went back, you’d be totally into it. But if she likes the gray, or doesn’t relish the hassle of keeping a dye job refreshed, then you should drop it.
Q. Adolescent embarrassment: I’m in my late-30s but for some reason am painfully embarrassed by my pre-teen/middle school years. I don’t want any throwback pics or “hey, remember how you used to…” discussion. It’s completely irrational. I was not tormented and had no particularly traumatic incidents. Just your garden-variety awkward. Anyway, I’ve never told anyone this because I realize it’s nuts. If things come up, I just laugh along and change the subject as swiftly as possible. But recently a family member has started posting clips from old family videos on Facebook. I am absolutely mortified at the thought of some of the videos that I know they have of me being made public. On one hand, I think that I should try to just laugh it off and let it go, and that making a big deal of it would just draw attention to it. But I’m not exaggerating when I say my stomach is in knots just thinking about those videos. Why can’t I see the humor in those years the way most people do?
A: You do not have to see the humor in your adolescence just because some other people see humor in theirs. Your feelings do not need to be justified by the experience of others! You can say to your relative, “Hey, I’m glad you’re enjoying these old videos. Would you please not upload any including me? I’d prefer not to have any videos of me as a child made public. Thank you so much.” You can also unfollow/detag yourself/mute your relative on social media if even videos that don’t include you, but remind you of that time in your life, make you feel uncomfortable. It’s fine to feel sensitive about this, and there’s plenty of relatively small steps you can take to avoid this source of anxiety.
Q. Reading too much into his ex pattern: I am 36 years old and have been in a relationship with a great guy for almost two years. He is 43. We are talking about marriage and possibly kids if that works out. I have zero issues with our relationship—it’s great. The only concern I have is that prior to dating me, my boyfriend only dated very attractive women under 26 years old. Some of them were even as young as 20 or 22, while he was in his mid-to-late 30s. I guess I am concerned that someday he will want to go back to that. I am not sure where this fear comes from, and I am not even sure what I want to communicate—“Hey, our relationship is great, but I have a fear, based on nothing, that you might want to go back to dating college-aged women.” I am being ridiculous. How can I get over this?
A: This fear is not based on nothing, and it’s not ridiculous. It’s based on a series of choices your boyfriend has made. Your goal should not be to “get over this.” Your goal should be to talk to your boyfriend about his past and to share your feelings, anxieties, and questions with him openly.
You’re not talking about an age gap between two adults in similar life situations, or the occasional exception—for most of his life and well into his late 30s, your boyfriend has dated college-aged women. That’s a pretty significant pattern, and there’s a pretty significant difference between an adult who’s been living independently for a few years and someone who was a senior in high school two years ago. How did he meet those women? How did they talk about the difference in their ages? What did he think about the potential imbalance of personal power inherent in a 38-year-old dating a 20-year-old? If he shuts down or dismisses the topic, that’s a sign that he hasn’t thought critically about it, and that should worry you. Not because he “might want to go back” to dating extremely young women, but because it’s an indicator of how he sees and treats women.
Q. Re: Is he insensitive? Or merely conservative?: I’m not sure I agree with Prudie’s answer on this one. As much as it’s certainly a possible red flag, I remember having a truly horrible argument with my now-husband, when we were first dating, in which he argued that rape culture wasn’t a real thing—after all, he’d never heard of it!—and I stormed out of his apartment in tears and almost dumped him. In the intervening years he has started listening to the things women (and other minorities) have to say, and has become possibly a better feminist than me (he is, among other things, spearheading a gender equality campaign in his workplace to recognize women’s unpaid contributions). The key character trait driving this change was a willingness to truly listen to other people and change his mind when confronted with new information. I think the letter writer probably needs to make that same assessment about her boyfriend, and I hope she gets as lucky as I did. But I agree that if she doesn’t get that sense from him, she needs to run, run, run.
A: I’m glad to hear that your husband came to listen and pay attention to you when you talked about rape culture. That said, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon anyone, particularly women, to stick with a partner in the hopes that they eventually come to believe in things like sexual assault and harassment. It would be a good outcome if the letter writer’s partner listened with an open mind, apologized for his previous dismissal, and went on to behave differently. It would also be a good outcome if the letter writer ended their relationship over this.
Q. Poly, maybe?: I recently got out of a very long-term relationship. I hadn’t expected to enter the dating world so soon, but I met a guy while traveling for work and made an instant connection with him. I only travel to his area a few weeks a year, so I stayed in contact with him and we chat almost every day. Well, I’ve just recently met someone else more local (once again, it caught me by surprise). I know I’m not necessarily ready for a relationship with either, but I’m really starting to like both of them. I’ve always felt I could be polyamorous, as I feel that people have the capability to care for and love multiple people, but should I continue spending time with both of them? How would I even bring this up with them? I feel like down the line, I’ll be forced to choose.
A: It’s great to think about this sort of thing before it comes up, but it’s worth remembering that one of the guys you’re seeing lives far away and you only get to see one another a few weeks a year. You don’t appear to be facing an imminent “Are we exclusive?” conversation. If you’re interested in poly dating, I’d encourage you to do some research about how other people make it work; it never hurts to have more information on your side, and you can probably benefit a great deal from hearing more about what mistakes and pitfalls others have experienced.
As for these two guys, it sounds like—so far—everything is going great. As long as you’re honest about what you feel (“I like you, I’m not looking for an exclusive relationship, I want to keep seeing each other”), you’re in the clear. If you want to talk about the possibility of polyamory with one or both of them, just say, “Hey, there’s no smooth way to open this conversation, so I’m just going to go for it. I’m interested in dating, but I’m not interested in monogamy; are you down for that?” If the answer is “No,” by the way, that doesn’t mean you did something wrong or that you shouldn’t have brought up the subject at all. It just means you’re both looking for different things, and your relationship has reached a natural end. Good luck!
Q. Mother off the rails: My father has just collapsed from a cancer none of us knew he had. He is ailing, and my mother is absolutely freaking out. She has always had undiagnosed, untreated mental illnesses. Since his retirement, she has clung to my father. My sister is there trying to manage things while my father is in the hospital. If she leaves the room, my mother freaks out. Last night mom called me, hysterical, saying that she had been “abandoned” (my sister went to the gym). She wandered the neighborhood wailing and sobbing until a neighbor came out to talk to her. Sooner or later, someone may call the police. She has not been to a doctor since I was born (I’m in my 50s). She won’t listen to anyone and wouldn’t let a caseworker into the house to assess the situation. I am estranged from all of them but would like to get her some help. Is there an agency I can contact? Once he passes, what would happen to her if she can never be alone? (She will never voluntarily go into a home.) They are both in their 90s. Please someone help me help them before someone gets hurt.
A: You can contact your local division of the Area Agency on Aging (here’s a relevant example from my neighborhood, for example), and/or get in touch with your city’s social services department and request an elder check. Here’s an elder care directory with specific information on what resources are available in different states. Since you’re estranged from your family, and it doesn’t sound like you’re planning on re-establishing contact, I think your best bet is to make sure your sister is aware of all the resources and assistance that may be available to her as she tries to care for your parents. If any readers have experience or advice they’d like to share, let me know and I’ll print that, too.
Q. Swiped a crush: I recently asked out a man and he said yes (yay!). However, it turns out my roommate is also interested in him. I did not know this at the time, and I’m wondering if I should tell her about it and make sure it doesn’t interfere with our friendship, or if I should just cancel the date.
A: Don’t cancel the date, but do let her know that you’re going out with him—not because you have to apologize for going out with a guy you didn’t know she sort of liked, but in the interest of full disclosure, and so she’s not surprised if he shows up at your place in a few weeks for a third or a fourth date.
Q. Daughter doesn’t want to visit me: My daughter is 16 years old. Her mother and I have been divorced for most of my daughter’s life. For years, I have had to fight my ex’s attempt to keep my daughter from me and to keep joint, 50-50 custody. However, as a teen my daughter has been rebelling—stealing, failing school, et cetera. I’ve punished her by taking her phone away or not letting her go over to friend’s houses. Instead of backing me up, my ex sides with my daughter—without asking me why I punished her. Now my daughter refuses to visit me and even called the police on me for sending her to wash her dishes after a meal. Do I force her (enforce my court order), or realize that a 16-year-old not wanting to see her dad is old enough to make her decision?
A: You do have the legal right to custody, of course, but if your goal is to preserve the possibility of a better relationship a few years down the road once your daughter is out of her teens, I think it’s wise to be judicious about enforcing your legal rights. That’s not to say you should stop speaking to her—if she’s acting out so extremely that she’s calling the police over being made to wash her dishes (!), then I think you have grounds for serious concern and should consider making her an appointment with a therapist. It’s a shame that your ex isn’t backing you up, but it might be worth trying to have a conversation with her about your concerns, and to make it clear that you’re worried about your daughter, and that you’re not capriciously punishing her, but trying to look out for her best interests.
Q. Re: Dye job: I would not ask your wife to do this. I’m also 30 and now officially in the “salt and pepper” phase of my hair, and while I can laugh about it, I would feel weird if my wife asked me to dye it to make it look younger. I am sure the letter writer has undergone changes with age that the letter writer cannot control that would be hurtful if letter writer’s wife brought them up.
A: I’m getting a lot of letters to the effect that it’s better not to ask, especially since your wife used to dye her hair. She’s probably acutely aware of how expensive and labor-intensive the process is, and has decided it’s no longer worth doing.