Dear Prudence

Help! My Friends’ Triumphs Make Me Feel Like I’m Falling Behind in Life.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

A car shifter in neutral.
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. 

Q. Feeling left behind: What can I do to stop feeling like I’m stuck in neutral? While everyone my age seems to be married or engaged, buying houses, having babies, and getting promotions, I feel stuck in pretty much the same spot I have been since I graduated college several years ago. I have a decent job, but it’s sort of a dead end. I have a boyfriend, but we don’t seem to be on the track to marriage. I’d like to move far away from where I grew up and buy a house, but I don’t make enough to pay my debt and save. I don’t think there’s an answer to my question, but maybe this will resonate with some readers.

A: I’m sure this will strike some readers as familiar—let us know what, if anything, you’ve found helpful in moments of stuckness. There are a number of on-the-face-obvious reactions to feeling stuck (breaking up with your boyfriend, looking for another job, moving somewhere more affordable), but all of them are fairly big-ticket items and might not be something you can do immediately. I’ll add too, because it’s customary at this point, that it’s not always productive to compare your situation with that of your immediate contemporaries. Not everyone is simultaneously getting promoted, married, and having children. There will likely be a small wave of first divorces among your peers in a couple of years, too.

Q. Neighbor’s not-so-quiet secret: I’ve lived next to “Sue” and “Matt” for almost a year, and in that time we have struck up a casual and friendly neighbor relationship. The wall adjoining our apartments is ridiculously thin between the bedrooms, and any noise above a whisper can be heard. We’ve all just accepted that, and since none of us are particularly loud, it hasn’t been a problem. Lately, I’ve been hearing something concerning, and I’m torn about bringing it up with Sue. For the past couple of months, I have heard what is unmistakably gay male porn. I have no problem with that, but I wonder if I should warn Sue and tell her she needs to talk to her husband. I feel like if it was me I would want to know, but I have no clue how to bring this up with them in a way that isn’t mortifying for everyone involved.

A: No. Absolutely not. You are merely casually friendly with these people, and the only reason you would mention this to Sue would be because you believed that watching gay porn—which you assume Matt is watching by himself as a secret from her, despite not mentioning any evidence that supports this belief—is a sign that he’s about to leave her for a man. You are more than a few steps ahead of yourself! Invest in a bedroom fan or white noise machine and do not concern yourself with the pornography your neighbors watch.

How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• send questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

• join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.

• call the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Q. Where’s the weirdness from?: My partner and I have been long distance for about 18 months. Finally, after months of trying, I got my work to transfer me to where she is. I thought she’d be thrilled, and initially she was—but she’s started acting … off. She’s reluctant to introduce me to her friends and co-workers, she’s possessive of her phone and laptop in a way she’s never been before, and she alternates between being withdrawn and being super-loving and sweet. In short, she’s acting guilty.

When I ask her what’s up, she says nothing’s wrong. I asked her if she cheated on me; she got defensive, denied it, and asked if I’d been snooping through her phone. (I hadn’t, and I wouldn’t; it’s completely against my values.)

The thing is, though I’d be upset to find out she cheated on me, I would be able to get past it. We’ve been apart a long time, and we both work stressful jobs. I wouldn’t love it, but I’d understand. This defensiveness and weirdness, however, is something I can’t get past. When I tried to explain that to her, she got angry with me, accused me of not trusting her, and told me I was the one making things weird, not her. I’m now struggling to trust my own judgement. She cheated on me, right? If so, how do I get her to just admit it? If not, how do I get to the bottom of this? Is there any hope for this relationship?

A: You’re already aware that whether or not she’s actually cheated on you isn’t the main issue here, so I think you know on some level that finding out definitively what she has or hasn’t done with someone else is not going to help you figure out whether your relationship has a future. Maybe she did (I’m inclined to think that’s the case, for whatever it’s worth) or maybe she didn’t. Maybe there’s something else bothering her, maybe she hasn’t cheated on you but doesn’t want you to live near her for some other reason—you can’t know unless she tells you. What you do know is that your girlfriend has suddenly changed, that you don’t believe she’s genuinely excited to date in the same town again, that she’s often emotionally withdrawn and doesn’t want you to be a part of her larger social circle, and that you don’t believe she’s telling you the truth when she says nothing’s wrong. If none of that changes, then I can’t imagine you’d want to transfer to be closer to her.

You don’t have to prove or discover anything in order to make a decision. Tell her, “I don’t know what’s different, but ever since I’ve told you that I might be moving closer to you, you’ve changed. You don’t seem to want me to meet your friends, you’re alternately distant and super-affectionate, you’ve suddenly become really possessive over your phone and laptop (and not because I’ve suddenly become interested in going through them), but whenever I try to talk to you about it, you deny that anything’s changed. I know I’m not making this up. I can’t make you talk to me about what’s bothering you, but I don’t feel like I know what’s going on with you and I don’t feel like I can trust you to tell me the truth. Unless something changes, I don’t want to move to be closer to you only to find you’re actually further away.”

Q. Give away the dog: My roommate’s girlfriend left her dog at my house for what was supposed to be a weekend trip. I agreed to watch the dog. My roommate then broke up with his girlfriend and moved out. I didn’t think anything of it, until the ex-girlfriend texted me that Sunday night to say she had a family emergency and wouldn’t be back until Wednesday. That was a month ago. My calls rarely get returned, and she curses me out on the phone if I tell her to pick up her dog. I am spending my own money to feed and take care this dog. It is a good dog, but I don’t want it.

Can I find someone else who will want the dog? The way I see it, you don’t really love your pets if you don’t take care of them. She no longer has the same phone number. I have given her two deadlines that she has ignored.

A: What a shame these two broke up; I should think their flakiness and irritability would have made them fairly compatible. This woman left her pet with you a month ago, hasn’t returned your calls, cursed you out for asking you to come collect her dog, and changed her phone number. She has demonstrated no interest in continuing to care for her pet, and you should feel free to find a good, permanent home for it.

Q. You know what they say about assuming … : I work in a small office where our boss has the habit of going through employees’ desks when they’re out. He claims he’s looking for something, but makes assumptions about things he finds, leaves terse notes, etc. Once I got in trouble because he found a company spoon in my drawer. Another time, he chastised me for improperly storing pens. As a result, I don’t take time off anymore.

My colleague and friend, “Tim,” is currently on a two-week vacation. Our boss went through his desk, theoretically looking for a file. While rifling, he found Tim’s résumé and a half-finished cover letter. Angry and assuming Tim was looking for another job, our boss made an excuse to write Tim up for some unfinished paperwork. I happen to know Tim’s not thinking of leaving but was using his résumé to help another co-worker, “Maddie,” create her own. I want to help Tim but not betray Maddie. What should I do? Do I tell our boss Tim was just helping someone else apply for a job? Tim said I could text him anytime during his vacation. Should I let him know what happened? To make matters worse, I think our boss is actively looking to replace Tim.

A: I think the best way you can help Tim is by telling him what happened, rather than trying to intervene on his behalf. Normally I’m not an advocate for interrupting a colleague’s vacation, but he’s already told you that you can get in touch with him via text, and you know something that may result in his getting fired—I think Tim would want to know so he can decide how he wants to handle this with your boss. And I hope this time next year you two are both working for someone more reasonable.

Q. Re: Feeling left behind: I can empathize with this. One thing I did was to start setting measurable goals. Instead of “I want to save money,” say, “I want to save X dollars by X date.” Start small, and achieving your goals will give you more confidence to think bigger.

A: Someone else pointed out that “even one small thing at a time, one per month, can help you feel unstuck.” Anything that shifts your plan from general to specific is a good thing. “I vaguely wish I was married/living elsewhere/on a comparable track with my peers” isn’t really achievable, whereas “I’d like to have X informational interviews about switching fields this month” is.

Q. Unsupportive BFF: A couple of months ago, I started to feel like I may have a drinking problem. There was no horrific intervention-worthy event leading up to this moment, I just woke up one day and realized I really didn’t like who I became when I drank, and so I decided not to anymore. This wasn’t an issue for my husband (who doesn’t drink, either) or my family (my brother is a recovering alcoholic), but my best friend seems to think this decision is a personal affront and refuses to acknowledge it as legitimate in any way. She is insistent that I do not have a drinking problem. If we go out for dinner, she’ll order me a drink despite my refusal, and if I don’t drink it, she complains loudly to the people around us. I know I’m not advocating for myself as I should be, but it’s becoming very stressful to repeatedly say, “Sorry, I’m not drinking tonight, but if you want to that’s fine.”

I’m at the point in my life where all of my female friendships feel based around the act of “getting drinks,” and while I’ve willfully let some of those friendships fizzle out in recent months, I can’t give up my best friend. We make concerted efforts to drive almost an hour to visit each other several times a month, and I’m frustrated and hurt that she spoils those visits by not respecting my wishes. What else can I do?

A: I think you have been advocating for yourself. The fact that your friend hasn’t paid any attention to your clearly stated wishes is a sign of her bad behavior, not a sign that you haven’t been clear. It’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes when one gets sober, others take it as a personal referendum on their own drinking, and go so far as to throw repeated tantrums in the hopes that they can publicly embarrass and pressure one back into old habits. You say you don’t want to lose this friendship but that she’s spoiling all your visits together. It may be that you don’t have much control over whether this friendship is able to continue. That will depend entirely on her response to what you say to her:

“The last few times we’ve gotten together, you’ve ordered drinks for me despite my telling you I don’t want any. You’ve also complained about my sobriety to strangers sitting near us in restaurants. That’s been embarrassing and hurtful. I’m not asking you to agree that I have a drinking problem, but I am asking you to respect the fact that I am the best judge of whether I’m capable of drinking. You need to stop ordering drinks on my behalf. This is a really reasonable request, and I don’t know why this has been so hard for you. Can you do this for me?”

Q. Dog tombstone from previous homeowner: What’s the rule on a pet tombstone left on the property of my new home from the previous homeowner? I’m at least fairly certain it’s for a dog. I really hope it’s for a dog. It’s kind of wigging me out, but I also don’t want to be disrespectful. It’s a whole elaborate, poured-concrete number, like from a mold, with plastic letters for the name and numbers for the birth and death dates. It’s not unambiguously a dog name, but I’m pretty sure it is. I really don’t want to leave it there. It’s not like it’s behind the garage either, it’s in the side yard in a garden bed. I’m planning to rent the place after I move out, and I don’t want to give potential renters the wiggins either. What do I do with it?

A: This seems like the sort of thing that—hopefully—your city has laws about. You might check with the realtor who sold you the house to find out what, if any, laws you might be breaking by removing a headstone (and to confirm that there’s not a human buried in your backyard). I certainly wouldn’t fault you for having the headstone removed after doing a little research first.

Q. When your kids’ stepparent is not your partner: My ex-wife and I amicably divorced several years ago, and have been successfully co-parenting our two daughters since then. A few years ago, my ex remarried a lovely woman who is a fantastic stepmother to my daughters. Everyone gets along swimmingly. With work schedules and busy lives, there are times at events for my daughters when their mother is not there, so their stepmother and I are. When we introduce ourselves as the girls’ father and stepmother, people often naturally assume we are a couple. It’s not a big deal, but it does sometimes lead to some awkward confusion later. Should we introduce ourselves differently, include a short monologue about our blended family with every introduction, or just let it go and correct mistaken assumptions later if it becomes an issue?

A: Congratulations, first of all, on having such a harmoniously blended family! That’s no small achievement. If the mistake doesn’t bother you, and hasn’t resulted in any truly upsetting confusion, I don’t think it’s incumbent on you to clarify your exact relationship to everyone you may meet in passing. But if you two are being introduced to someone new without your ex-wife present, you can certainly say “Hi, I’m X’s dad” and “I’m Y, I’m married to X’s mom.”

Q. Re: Give away the dog: I agree with Prudie’s advice, but with a few additional suggestions: First, document everything. Keep all phone records, texts, emails, etc. Next, make one final effort, stating that after X date the dog will be taken to a shelter or otherwise rehomed. The ex-girlfriend sounds like someone who will not hesitate to sue you for getting rid of her beloved pet, so just make sure you do what’s necessary to protect yourself.

A: Excellent points! I agree it’s likely this woman would likely pull a complete 180 and act shocked, hurt, and betrayed if the letter writer were to rehome the dog, so documenting all of your attempts to return it can only help you.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Make sure to take care of your own dog and keep your eyes on your own pornography this week.

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

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on her Facebook page!

Vintage Dear Prudence

“Four years ago, my birth control failed. I never wanted kids and was set to have an abortion, but my husband convinced me it’d be different with our own. It’s not. I’m glad my husband bonded with our daughter, because I wish her no harm but do not love her. My unwillingness to spend time with her made me take on long hours at work, and I am being rewarded with a promotion and raise that requires a transfer to a city 1,000 miles away. I accepted as soon as it was offered. I’m now wondering how to tell my husband that this is a done deal and also that I’d prefer that he and our daughter stay behind. Any thoughts?

And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.