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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, fellow prudes. Let’s get started.
Q. How do I tell a stranger at the gym she reeks?: I live in a condo that has a gym, which I frequent. Unfortunately, another gym rat in the building smells very bad. She might not care, or she might not even notice; I’m not sure. But the gym is small, and the stench is so unpleasant that it makes me cut my workout short. (We’re usually the only two there at the same time.) What’s the appropriate way to say something? Or should I just avoid confrontation and file a gentle complaint with the property manager? Thanks so much for your guidance!
A: If you have the opportunity to speak directly to another human being about something she can address, I almost always recommend that over filing a complaint with a third party for the mere sake of “avoiding confrontation.” This is just going to be an uncomfortable conversation! There are no two ways about it! (I assume you’ve already thought about working out at a different time or switching gyms, otherwise I’d suggest it.)
Hopefully you two have a quietly friendly rapport if you’re often in the gym at the same time—at the very least you might nod and smile at each other before putting on headphones. “Hey! I feel self-conscious about saying anything, but I’d want someone to tell me—you often have a pretty intense smell that sometimes makes it difficult for me to finish my workout, especially in a small space like this one. I’d really appreciate it if you’d put on some extra deodorant. I know this is an awkward subject—thanks for listening.”
Q. Breakup lite?: Well, the hard part is over. My boyfriend of two years and I are breaking up. It’s excruciating, because I love living with him. He is clean, polite, funny, a kick-ass cook, and handles conflict well. But that just makes it harder that he’s not very affectionate. He doesn’t share much of himself emotionally, or put his arm around me anymore, or initiate sex. I could almost have dealt with it, but when I told him I needed him to take sex more seriously or it would end the relationship, he didn’t make any changes. I feel that in order for him to grow into a person I could be happy with, we need to separate, at least for a while. I really think it will help him grow. But I can’t picture us not being in each other’s lives at all. We are both clear-headed about the reasons we are separating, and there are no bad feelings. Is it unreasonable that I still picture us getting dinner together twice a week or going to the zoo and making up stories about the animals? (Giraffes can be very catty.)
A: I think exes can be friends, even great friends! I think it’s very difficult to make the switch from “We are in love and will build our lives around one another” to “We get dinner twice a week” overnight, even if you both saw the end of the romance coming for a while. Often, I think, people move to initiate a friendship too quickly with an ex because they’re afraid of really experiencing the loss of the romantic relationship and want to ease that transition. You talk about this breakup in really nebulous terms—you hope that he’ll “grow into a person” you can be happy with, but I don’t think time apart is likely to fundamentally alter the fact that you two seem to have really different libidos and relationships to sex and physical intimacy. That’s a compatibility issue, not a personal development issue. Trying to soften the blow of the breakup by framing it as a separation until he decides he wants sex as often and in the same way as you do is, I think, a recipe for continued disappointment.
Call this what it is: the end of your romantic relationship. Accept that it’s over for pretty significant reasons. Take the time to grieve what you’ve lost and allow yourself to miss him. In time, you two may become excellent friends, but you can’t rush into friendship by pushing away reality and painful feelings. Go to the zoo with someone else—at least for now.
Q. Covert racism: I am a white woman married to a black man. We live in a mainly white town, and I grew up knowing racism was alive and well in our town. I have a few friends left from high school but have abandoned many due to their racist views. One of my friends, “Melissa,” has never said anything overtly racist in my presence, but every single man she has ever dated has been a racist who proudly shared his views on social media. She is now pregnant and is trying to reach out for support, as she is not with the father and doesn’t have many close friends or family. Meanwhile, she recently started dating another guy who posted racist comments on social media last week. I have brought up the comments of past men, and she brushes them off: “Well, you know where he grew up. What do you expect?” How do I explain to her that by repeatedly dating racist men, I believe she harbors the same feelings as them?
A: “I expect him not to not justify his proud and public racism based on the town he grew up in, and I expect my friends not to excuse the racism of others.” You are dead on—she does harbor the same feelings as these men. She’s simply a bit savvier in not attaching her name to openly racist views on social media. The fact that you say, “She’s never said anything overtly racist in my presence” suggests you’re aware—rightly, I think—that she probably says a lot of overtly racist things when you’re not around. This isn’t something you need to explain to her. The problem is not that Melissa fails to understand the implications of her relationship history; she’s perfectly aware that she’s getting away with a sort of coy, half-avowed racism, yet maintaining plausible deniability by dating men who are comfortable espousing racist beliefs in public then dismissing it as a mere byproduct of their upbringing.
Q. Private lessons: I was a professional dancer for about six years before I was in a car wreck that ended my career. Since then I have married and now work at a nonprofit. I was contacted by a friend who introduced me to several gifted but underprivileged dance students. I saw myself in their talent and struggles. I have taken a few on as a personal instructor and coach. I do this on my own time and pay for it from my own pocket. When my sister-in-law heard I was teaching, she got it into her head that I should include her 7- and 8-year-old daughters for free because I am family. I told her no over the phone, and then she drove over with the girls in dance gear. I told her no again and refused to let her in the door. She threw a fit and since then has been blasting me over all social media and got the rest of my in-laws on her side.
My husband is overseas right now, so I am alone in all this. I always considered myself close to my mother-in-law, but she even asked me why I couldn’t set time aside for “the girls” rather than these “strangers.” I love my nieces, but they are not serious about dance. It is a fun activity, nothing more. My students are passionate about dance; it is their love and lifeblood. I feel so isolated and under attack. I never realized my in-laws were so crucial to my social circle until now. What do I do?
A: How absolutely incredible that your sister-in-law heard about your volunteer work, decided she personally stood to benefit from it, disregarded your first refusal, embarrassed herself by driving her poor children to your house covered in tutus, and demanded you say no to her again, then embarrassed herself further by announcing her total lack of boundaries and sense of entitlement all over social media. I genuinely don’t know how she gets out of bed in the morning—I’d be so humiliated if I’d done half of those things that I think I’d stay inside for a month at least.
There’s no question, I think, of your giving in to her. If you were to give in to her outrageous behavior, it would only encourage future tantrums. Since your mother-in-law seems more reasonable, I think you can have a conversation with her first: “I volunteer with some of the neighborhood girls who love dance, but whose families don’t have the money to train as seriously as their talents merit. It’s rewarding, and I love getting to do it, but I don’t have unlimited time and energy, and this is a passion project of mine. I told Shamela that I wasn’t available to train her daughters, and she’s refused to take no for an answer. I’m sorry that she’s become so upset at the thought of my not teaching her daughters how to dance, but there’s nothing I can do about that, since I was clear with her from the start, and there are plenty of excellent dance studios in the area.”
With your sister-in-law, refuse to engage on the level she’s insisting upon. Mute or block her on social media. If she tries to harangue you again or sneaks into your house in the middle of the night and starts setting up a recital stage in your kitchen, be absolutely clear: “I know I’ve been clear to you about not being available to teach your girls. My volunteer work was not an advertisement for a family dance studio. I hope you decide to let it go and find someone else to teach your girls, but I’m not going to engage you on the subject again.” I’m sorry that your in-laws make such a crucial component of your social circle—my best advice is to cultivate other friendships, especially until your husband gets back.
Q. I should feel bad, but I don’t: I have been involved with a man for almost a decade. He is wonderful to me, extremely loving and attentive, and even helps me with projects around the house. We see each other several times a week, vacation together twice a year, and have a great time when we are together. We plan a future together. The problem? He is married. His wife left him for another man, which is when we got involved. She came back after she was dumped by that guy and begged to be taken back. She promised she would be kinder to him and even get a job to help out around the house, but she didn’t. She mainly sits around the house and watches TV. My guy doesn’t kick her out because he has a heart of gold and she literally has no friends and nowhere else to go, and if they divorced she would get half of his net worth. Plus, he obviously has a lot of freedom.
I am perfectly content with the way things are because I am quite independent and self-sufficient. I get that I should feel guilty about this, but I don’t. Does that make me a bad person?
A: I’m not especially interested in rating your relative badness from afar, on the strength of a single aspect of your life. You seem relatively happy with your situation, although I’m inclined to think you’re a little too easily impressed if “he even helps me with projects around the house” is the bar you set for a “wonderful” partner. That’s pretty standard! You’ve certainly bought into your boyfriend’s narrative that he’s an angel whose only flaw is being too loving and supportive, and that his ex-wife-in-all-but-name is a cheating monster who’s incapable of developing a life of her own (but is somehow so savvy he absolutely knows that she’d get half of his assets, no question, in a divorce). I’m skeptical!
If the situation you’ve just described makes you happy, then I don’t think there’s anything I could say to you that would persuade you to arrange your personal life any differently. You are perfectly free to live in this fashion! If, however, part of the reason you wrote to a stranger asking to be judged on the basis of your romantic situation is that you feel a sense of unease yourself, I think that’s worth exploring.
Q. Niece: My sister-in-law cannot control her daughter “Ally.” Her father died a few years ago, and since then Ally has made it her mission to make everyone around her as miserable as possible. She started sleeping around at 13, had an abortion at 14, and got pregnant again at 15. She has no clue who the father is. She had the baby, only to abandon him and run away for a month. She has been suspended and failed so many classes that her education level is of a seventh-grader at 16.
My sister-in-law can’t cope with Ally while working full time and raising a baby. Ally is currently in juvie on theft and shoplifting charges. Her mother is begging my husband and me to take Ally in and set her straight. We live out in the country, so Ally wouldn’t have so many distractions or anywhere to go if she ran away again. My husband wants to take Ally in. (Her mother will leave her in jail otherwise.) I don’t. I don’t know if Ally is wrong in the head or the heart, but I have never seen a shred of remorse in this girl. I don’t want her under my roof. I don’t know how to get this through to my husband. How can I?
A: I think it’s less likely that Ally is attempting to make life difficult for the people around her out of a sense of whimsy and more likely that she herself is in a great deal of pain and doesn’t have access to the help she needs. If nothing else, I’d encourage you not to think of a 15-year-old girl whose father died, and who’s become a parent herself in the span of a few short years, as “wrong in the head or the heart.” That doesn’t mean you ought to approve of her behavior, or that she’s in fact a sweet misunderstood innocent, but she’s still a child herself, and she’s not acting out like this for fun—she’s probably experiencing as much pain and chaos internally as she seems to be creating externally.
That said, you’re not obligated to parent this teenager if you don’t feel prepared to do so, and I think you have a very clear task ahead of you. “I’m not available to co-parent Ally. I want to be extremely upfront about that. I have sympathy for her and her family, but I’m not prepared to step in and help raise her. I’m happy to talk about other ways in which we might support Ally’s mother, but if you decide you absolutely have to take Ally in, I’m going to have to move out.”
Q. Childless with stretch marks: I got pregnant as a teenager and gave the child up. The child is now grown and knows who I am. We don’t have much of a relationship; his family is his family. But that’s not exactly my problem. When the situation was fresh, I was quite open about it. However, as time has passed, and I’ve moved away from the friends that were close to me when the trauma was occurring, I have less desire to talk about my teen pregnancy and subsequent failure at parenting. As I’ve grown into myself, I’ve decided against starting a family. I haven’t told anyone about the child (now an adult) in almost a decade.
I’m in my late 30s now and am trying to date after taking many years to focus on myself. I’ve moved far away from “home,” started a new career, and am getting to a decent place. The problem is my naked body. I have lived with terrible stretch marks covering my stomach for two decades. Really bad stretch marks. I recently lost a bit of weight and they’re worse than ever. It’s blatantly obvious that I was very pregnant in the past. And I don’t know how to broach the subject. I don’t feel the need to justify my actions from 20 years ago to every potential suitor or to dredge up the trauma of my failed family on every first date. But my attempts to hide my body or ignore the topic are not working either. Honesty seems to be met with a litany of judgmental questions, even from the most well-meaning dates. But refusing to show my midriff during sex feels like a lie of omission. It also feels like garbage to pretend that I was in any way a parent. I’ve been saving for plastic surgery for years, but at present it’s not an option. What can I do or say to bring some confidence back into my bedroom game without crying about my past?
A: I can just feel the pain and shame coming off of your letter. You call yourself a “failure at parenting” but also consider yourself “garbage” for not acknowledging the fact that you were once pregnant. If nothing else, I hope you can try to remind yourself of this when you’re tempted to beat yourself up: You weren’t a failure as a parent. You made an incredibly difficult decision as a teenager to find parents for your child, and you did exactly that. He was taken care of, and loved, and has a strong relationship with his family—that’s not a failure by any stretch of the imagination. You are also not obligated to disclose traumatic or painful experiences from your adolescence to current or future sex partners. I don’t think your stretch marks are quite the smoking gun you believe them to be; lots of people have stretch marks, often on their stomachs, for a whole host of reasons. I’m so sorry that you’ve had dates who have asked you judgmental questions about your body, even if they think they’re doing it in a well-meaning fashion.
In the future, I think the best way to acknowledge the subject (as well as screen for dates you absolutely don’t want to take home) is just this: “I have a lot of stretch marks, and I’m pretty self-conscious about them. It takes a while for me to get comfortable around someone, so I hope you’ll understand if I stay a bit covered up if this date goes further.” You don’t have to say that unless and until you think it’s likely you’re going to get into bed with someone (and, of course, if you’d rather wait to go to bed with someone until after you’ve gotten to know them well and feel a sense of trust, then that’s just fine). But beware of anyone whose response to that is to ask more prying questions—that’s the sort of person who can’t be trusted with intimacy and vulnerability.
Q. Re: How do I tell a stranger at the gym she reeks?: Isn’t the gym where people are expected to smell the worst? This is not someone she is seeing after they supposedly showered—she is dirty and sweaty. Some people just have a naturally stronger odor than others, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I think she just needs to deal with it or change her workout time.
A: Nobody smells their best at the gym, but my guess is that if the letter writer is cutting workouts short, this is several steps beyond bog-standard gym sweatiness. I imagine the letter writer has already taken into account the most obvious first-blush solutions, like changing their workout time, finding another gym, or opening a window, because if those options had been available, the letter writer wouldn’t be writing to me. There’s “Yikes, this gym smells a little stale and gym-y,” and then there’s, “Oh, wow, I have to get out of here!” I think the letter writer is experiencing the latter rather than the former.
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