Dear Prudence

Help! I’m Terrified That My Mental Illness Is Going to Ruin My Relationship.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Sad woman and unemotional man.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, chatters. Let’s do this.

Q. Is it fair of me to have a relationship?: I’ve had mental health issues my entire life. I always knew, logically, that I was likely to be like this for life, but it only really sank in when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This can be managed, but I’ll never be like other people.

I feel incredibly guilty about having a fiancé. He says that I have nothing to worry about, that he loves me and wants me in his life no matter what—but I feel awful. Every article I’ve found online about navigating relationships as a bipolar person has a comment section full of people saying how being with someone like me ruined their life, how we’re all selfish and cruel. On top of dealing with my episodes, my fiancé also is supporting us both financially, as I can’t hold down a job for more than a few months and need a big recovery period before I can try again. I am terrified that I’m going to ruin my fiancé’s life.

Should I go? I don’t want to lose him, but I feel so selfish. I worry he won’t leave me when he can’t take it anymore because he won’t want to hurt me. Isn’t it right that I stop him from reaching that point?

A: I think it would be good for your peace of mind and your relationship if you were to stop reading articles and comment sections about dating as a bipolar person. I don’t mean to be flippant or to suggest that will address all of the issues you’re currently facing, but you are not learning anything meaningful about yourself or your fiancé in so doing. You’re not gaining useful information, you’re not caring for yourself, you’re not actually receiving help in those moments—you’re seeking out the bleakest, most anonymous opinions on the very idea of your relationship in order to convince yourself that the worst thing you believe about yourself is also the most true. (Which is a very relatable impulse.) Someone venting uncharitably about an ex of theirs in a comment section is not going to provide you with sound well-meaning advice for the rest of your life. You wouldn’t consider such information authoritative if it didn’t play into pre-existing fears about your own worthiness, I don’t think, and you shouldn’t seek it out in order to punish yourself.

You say that you’ve received a diagnosis and I assume that means you’re also getting professional treatment. If you’re not already in therapy, I think it might help you deal with these extreme feelings of self-loathing and anxiety about the future. It might also be helpful in the long term for you to look into filing for disability if you’re not able to work consistently.

But as for your question—“If I accept as a foregone conclusion that I am only a burden to my partner, and that I can’t trust him to look out for his own well-being and assume he’ll never break up with me even if he wanted to, isn’t it better that I end this now?”—my answer is No. I think you can and should talk to your fiancé about your fears, that you deserve all the support you need (both professional and otherwise), and that you should take him at his word when he says he wants to be with you. You are not a problem. You’re his partner.

Q. Dating client’s daughter: I work for a small, 10-person company that performs contract work for other companies. Over the past year, I have been working closely with the vice president of our most important client and have gotten to know her well. She introduced me to her daughter, who is not involved in her mother’s company, and the two of us hit it off and discovered that we have similar interests and mutual friends. After getting to know her, I asked her on a date and she accepted. I mentioned it to a co-worker, and he freaked out and accused me of putting the entire company in jeopardy. He told me to immediately cancel the date and to inform my boss as soon as he returns from vacation.

He seems convinced that our contract will be terminated if the relationship goes bad, and that I’m committing inappropriate and unethical behavior. It doesn’t seem inappropriate or unethical to me, as she is not involved in her mom’s company. Is it really an issue?

A: I agree that this doesn’t strike me as unethical, but I do understand, to a certain extent, why your co-worker was surprised and anxious. It would have been one thing if you had decided to go on a date with this woman and see where things went quietly, but mentioning it to your co-worker slightly changed the tone of things. That doesn’t mean your co-worker was right to immediately panic, or that you’re risking the entire company, but there is the potential for a fair amount of awkwardness should things not work out between the two of you.

That does not mean that you are obligated to inform your boss who you’re dating, or that you have to cancel. I think the best way forward is not to engage—if your co-worker brings the subject up again, just say, “I shouldn’t have brought this up at work, and from now on I want to make sure I don’t discuss my personal life at the office. Thanks.” (I’d welcome further advice from anyone else with similar experience!)

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Q. Hiring dilemma: I’m the executive director of a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. “Janice” just applied to serve in a client-facing role at our nonprofit. She comes with excellent references, but there’s a caveat: She frequently espouses her religious beliefs to anyone who will listen and has made homophobic and Islamophobic remarks to staff members at her previous place of employment.

On one hand, she’s done excellent work with our target group and expresses a genuine desire to work with a vulnerable population. On the other hand, her evangelizing and homophobia could do actual harm to students she encounters. Does one side outweigh the other? Should I give her a try? Is there another option I haven’t considered? I’m struggling to find other solid candidates. Please help!

A: If you know your strongest candidate has a recent history of religious proselytizing in the workplace, as well as making bigoted statements to her co-workers, then don’t hire her. Even if it means the job search continues longer than you’d hoped for, the degree of harm Janice could potentially cause to the “vulnerable population” of your client base—regardless of how excellent her work is when she’s not evangelizing or making dehumanizing comments—outweighs other considerations here.

Q. Family vs. employment: I have an 18-year-old daughter who lives with me and a 17-year-old son who lives with his dad. Both have part-time jobs while they attend high school. For spring break, my son wanted to come visit me, but his dad was adamant that he shouldn’t because he has a job and a responsibility not to ask for days off unless it’s an emergency. I told my son it was fine, and that I’d fly him down to me when he gets two or three consecutive days off. Then, my daughter told her father that she could not go to him for spring break, because she had just gotten her job and thought it was a bad idea to ask for a week off right away. He ranted and sent angry text messages to her, saying that she should not put anything in front of family, and she’s picking the “devil” over visiting her dad by choosing to not miss a couple of days. (This is not a gender issue, as he would have done it if it was the other way around. It’s just that he’ll say whatever benefits him in the moment.)

How do I help my daughter not feel like she’s letting her father down? Do I explain how he gave her brother the exact opposite advice, or do I just sit by? She’s now (barely) an adult, so I’m not sure how much I should interfere.

A: Telling your adult child that they’re choosing “the devil” over their family by working over spring break is an incredibly extreme response. You say that he’ll “say whatever benefits him in the moment,” which suggests that these vicious outbursts aren’t uncommon for him, but I’m not sure that you realize just how bizarre and cruel your children’s father’s actions were. Certainly, if you think that there’s any chance your daughter might blame herself for her father’s outburst, you should reassure her that her choice was extremely understandable and not in any way disloyal, and ask if there’s any way you can help support her as she figures out how (and whether) she might like to respond to her father’s tantrum.

Q. In-laws: My husband died two weeks after our wedding because of a slip and fall at work. We didn’t even get to go on our honeymoon. My in-laws were never warm toward me, but they became especially hostile when they found out I had inherited everything and that my husband wanted to be cremated instead of buried in the family church. They left angry voicemails on my phone, and my sister-in-law confronted me at work to accuse me of “profiting” from my husband’s death. It got so ugly I had to use a lawyer to get them to back off, and I actually had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.

I finally am at peace three years later, but I am torn as to what to do with my husband’s ashes and personal effects (pictures, yearbooks, my husband’s beloved motorcycle, etc.). I would like to divide the ashes and offer them, along with the belongings, to my in-laws before I give anything away. I would consider this a peace offering, but I don’t know how they would take it. I am nervous about contacting them, though using another lawyer feels cold to me. What should I do?

A: I think your instinct to go through a lawyer is a good one, in part because you have excellent reason to believe your in-laws may respond to any offer with hostility and unreasonable demands. A lawyer would act as an emotional buffer so you don’t have to deal with further voicemails or accusations. It’s clear that you’re not cold toward them in the least, but if you were hospitalized at least in part as a result of their harassment, then I think going through a lawyer is simply good self-preservation.

Q. Re: Is it fair of me to have a relationship?: Listen to your fiancé. Sometimes my husband apologizes for his injury/mental health/other health concerns. I knew where he was in his recovery, what his prognoses were, and what our life might look like (the good and the difficult). I made the decision to marry him considering all of that. When he starts feeling guilty and spirals down the rabbit hole of feeling sorry for me, he ends up feeling sorry for himself (for not living up to his own expectations), and it ultimately makes it harder for him to participate in activities of daily living. I’d rather he just take me at my word that I love him and that I think all the health stuff is just part of the package.

A: I realize that on some level what I am saying to this letter writer is “Don’t trust the experience of other anonymous strangers on the Internet, but here are some perspectives from our anonymous strangers on the Internet that may help you.” And yet I do think, at least in the context of this chat, that we have a shared investment in your future well-being, and that it may prove helpful to hear this perspective. My guess is that if you already have a tendency towards beating yourself up, you might want to use this as a new way to do so (“When I feel this anxiety, now I have to feel even guiltier that I’m not taking my partner at his word”), but I think it’s a useful reframing. Trust that your partner knows you well, is aware of what you struggle with, and has chosen to be with you in full knowledge of that. And I imagine there are ways too in which you are aware of his own struggles, and don’t love him any less for them!

Q. Maternity leave conundrum: I’ve been at my current job for about a year now, but recently got an offer to return to my previous company at a better position and for better pay than I make now. I liked my previous company and co-workers better, and the position offered would be a step up. My issue is that my current boss is pregnant and has told me that she will be leaning on me heavily while she is on maternity leave, which should begin in two to three months.

We are a relatively small organization, so I feel awful about the prospect of leaving and putting her in a difficult situation in regard to her maternity leave. Friends tell me that I shouldn’t take her pregnancy into account in my decision-making, but I can’t help but feel guilty! Should I consider her maternity leave when making this decision? Or just do what’s best for my career?

A: Give your boss as much advance notice as possible, and take the offer. If she has two or three months to find a replacement for you, that’s a reasonable amount of time to set up a contingency plan. People leave jobs all the time, and they can’t always time their resignations on the company’s schedule—this happens more often than you might think, and companies survive awkward transitions every day.

Q. Foul-weather friend: A friend of mind recently went through a hard time. She lost her husband after a yearlong, difficult illness. Though we live some distance apart, I was there for her every step of the way—calling to find out the latest news, texting support and encouragement, sending cards and gifts to her and their young children. Now that he has passed away, she has quickly become engaged to a new man. Though I knew of her boyfriend, I found out about their engagement over Facebook. She has not reached out to me in over six months to check on me or to see how I am doing. Can I let her know that I feel used, or has she taken my support and moved on?

A: I think a better place to start would be, “I miss you. I haven’t heard from you in so long, and I want to know how you’re doing, and to catch you up on what’s new with me. Can we find a time to talk soon?”

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