Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Internship: My company offers paid internships to college and high school students with an interest in our field. It has gotten very competitive over the past few years. My cousin “Anna” begged me to get one for her daughter, “Ally.” So I pulled a few strings. It was a mistake. Ally was unkempt, constantly tardy, and always on her phone. She would come to work wearing flip-flops, pajama bottoms, and safety pins in lieu of earrings. While it is a creative field, my company has a dress code. Ally got sent home twice, and I sent Anna an email explaining that she needed to talk to her daughter about her work ethic and how to behave in an office.
It came to a miserable end in August. My cousin is angry at me for not “looking out” for her daughter and still expects me to write recommendation letters for Ally. At this point, I have nothing good to say about Ally that wouldn’t be a complete fabrication. I also don’t want to cause a family feud—I usually spend holidays with my aunt and uncle (Anna’s parents) since mine retired out of the country. What should I do? Lie? Say Ally’s work speaks for itself? Say company policy will not let me write a letter for a relative?
A: I’m stuck on the fact that you wrote your cousin an email explaining that she needed to teach her daughter how to behave in an office—surely that’s part of the point of having an internship, and something the company should have been doing. Just because you made a mistake in pulling strings in the first place to give an unfair advantage to a family member of yours doesn’t mean you should have compounded your error by involving someone’s mother in a workplace issue. Your last question—“Should Anna ask someone else?”—tells me you’re both still way too involved in Ally’s job search. Ally should be asking for her own recommendation letters. If her mother is continuing to pester you for one, say, “I won’t be able to write one that is both truthful about her time here and useful for future applications; Ally should find someone she had a positive relationship with at the company and ask them for a recommendation.” If you think you’re likely to get away with a graceful lie, then sure, say company policy prevents you from doing so—although if you were already able to bend the rules to get your cousin’s daughter the job, my guess is that Anna will try to push back on that one. At least you’ve learned the dangers of mixing family and work with a relatively low-stakes internship and will be able to say, “Sorry, I have a long-standing rule never to involve my family in my work life” if any other cousins have poorly performing children they want to pawn off on you.
Q. Career erasure: My husband had a career that made him very wealthy before I met him. That career ended in frustration and burnout a couple of years into our marriage. We then moved across the country. Since then, he’s mostly focused on raising our kids, and music. (He always kept up his instrument and now plays some gigs and teaches a few young students.) He cut off contact with everyone from his old industry. He doesn’t tell anyone that he is anything other than “a dad and part-time musician.” The thing is, we live a lot better than might be expected given our present occupations (I’m a teacher), which naturally makes people—including our own kids—curious. He just tells people that “my wife has family money.” My maternal grandparents were wealthy, but none of that ever came to me.
I think he should be proud of his career achievements even if he left his old job with a bad taste in his mouth. He says he prefers never to think about it, let alone talk about it, and when he answers those questions about our lifestyle in the way he does, he means it as a “tongue-in-cheek” way to shut down the conversation. How do I handle this?
A: It’s one thing to have a frank conversation with your children about your finances and class status, but I’m curious how this is coming up with other people in your life and why it only seems to come up with your husband. Does he have a habit of bragging about how well-off you are? The fact that he’s also decided to make up a totally unnecessary lie that puts you in an uncomfortable position makes me question his ability to read a room and keep an accurate sense of what is and isn’t appropriate to bring up in everyday conversation.
But let’s assume he’s not saying anything out of the ordinary and that some of your friends and acquaintances have simply gotten nosy about the type of car you drive or the size of your house. There is no reason to answer rude questions simply because someone has asked them, and “natural curiosity” is not a good-enough reason to ask a fellow parent in the car-pool group, or a casual friend, “Hey, where do you get all your money from?” So both of you should feel enormously free to say, “That’s an awfully personal question,” followed by a pointed silence.
When it comes to your husband’s lie, you should feel even more freedom to say, “This is not a fun, tongue-in-cheek response for me. It makes me feel like I have to either cover up for your lie with a bunch of false details about my own family or admit to our friends that you made something up. The fact that you don’t like talking about your old job is totally understandable, but it’s not a good reason for lying about me and putting me in an uncomfortable situation. You need to find another way to deflect the question.”
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Q. Long distance or bust: I care very much about my boyfriend of about one year and nine months. Recently, things have gotten really rough between us. He accepted, with my blessing, a position across the country in Georgia. He wants me to move there with him for a year, leaving my friends and family behind. We’ve now been long-distance for a bit, which is hard, but I am currently visiting him in his new city. I work remotely, so I was able to come and stay with him for a month. I don’t like it at all here. It’s very small and rural, and I’m used to big cities or suburbs. I feel like there’s nothing fun to do, I have no direction and no friends. He is working 10 hours on weekdays, so I am often left alone. We don’t have a car, so it’s hard to get anywhere. Even on the weekends, my boyfriend is often burned out and playing video games while I want to go out and explore the new state. I feel resentful and unhappy, and I’ve started to take it out on him.
I’ve told him in many ways how I feel and that I don’t think I’m going to change my mind, but I’m not sure he’s listening. He says I decided I wasn’t going to like it, so I won’t. I feel like he’s trying to change me. He tells me we’ll work it out, but I really don’t know how. I’m going back to my home state in the middle of the month, but how do we proceed from here? Long distance was pretty tough for us, but I know I don’t want to live somewhere where I feel unhappy or trapped.
A: Don’t move there with him. Don’t move there with him. Don’t move there with him. You’ve spent slightly less than an entire month there with him and you’re already absolutely miserable and taking your resentments out on him. That’s after a mere 30 days. What’s much worse is that he spends absolutely none of his time with you and acts like you should be having a good time sitting in an apartment by yourself or watching him play video games before falling asleep on a Saturday night. He says you two will “work it out,” but it sounds like his plan for working it out is just to make you move anyway and dismiss your concerns. You’ve told him you don’t like living far from your family and friends, isolated in the country with no car, especially when he’s busy and exhausted all of the time, but he acts as if it’s simply a matter of will, as if you were simply optimistic enough that you could come to love all of those things. He’s not listening to you. You’ve gotten a taste of what living with this guy is going to be like, and something tells me that even if you loved the place he’d moved to, the fact that he ignores your concerns and considers “Just do it anyway” to be a meaningful compromise means that it’s time for this relationship to end.
Q. Re: Internship: Really Prudie? The company has a responsibility to teach her not to wear pajama bottoms and flip-flops to work? Is this girl somehow unable to see that nobody besides her is doing so?
A: Of course Anna was wrong to wear pajamas and flip-flops to work in spite of the company dress code. That’s not in question. The question is whether the company or her mother should be speaking to her about how she dresses at work. The answer is, obviously, the company, because her mother does not employ her.
Q. I need your guidance: My soon-to-be ex-wife, through her lies, intentional actions, and manipulations, has put me in more than $100,000 in debt after being extremely generous with her and her family. I have evidence that she has been stealing from the hospital where she works. I repeatedly asked her to stop because the patient ends up paying for it, and stealing is wrong. Should I tell HR?
A: I think it’s important to check your own motivations here. If you knew about this stealing for a long time and never considered talking to HR before your divorce, and your only interest is in making your soon-to-be ex-wife’s life more difficult, then I don’t think that’s a wise impulse to give in to. It also makes a difference what she’s been stealing—has she been stealing medication from patients, endangering their safety? Has she been stealing office supplies, which isn’t great but probably falls under the category of things that don’t concern you? Would you be doing this out of a sincere concern for the way her hospital treats patients or simply out of revenge because you’re frustrated about your own financial losses? Absent more information, I think your best option is to hire a good lawyer, focus on finalizing your divorce, and move on with your life, rather than try to extend the ways in which you’re connected to your ex.
Q. It’s me, not you: I’m unfortunately squeamish and often get severely lightheaded at the sight of blood. My girlfriend, however, enjoys having sex on her period—as she should!—but I almost always feel as if I’m going to pass out. I finally mentioned this to her recently, and despite my best efforts, she was embarrassed and upset. This deeply saddened me, especially because I don’t want in any way to add to the long history of men stigmatizing menstruation and women’s bodies. Please help—I tried not looking but still got too dizzy!
A: Is this the first time you’ve ever talked to your girlfriend about your squeamishness around blood? It may not have come up before, of course, so I can understand why the timing is unfortunate, but it sounds like you’re making it clear that this does not have to do with any anti-menstruation attitude on your part but instead an across-the-board reaction to the sight of blood that’s pretty involuntary and powerful. There are, of course, ways you could try to accommodate your phobia—using condoms as a barrier when she’s on her period (if you don’t already), “mood” lighting, etc.—but if that’s not helpful, you shouldn’t push yourself to try to power through sex when you’re worried about passing out. It’s reasonable for your girlfriend to have her own feelings about this, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done or said anything wrong. Keep talking about this as a couple, give as much space to your own feelings as you give to her, and don’t push yourself past your physical limitations. There may not be an immediately workable compromise, but talking will help, as will reminding yourself that you’re not doing this at or to her—you’re simply dealing with a fairly common phobia that makes a particular kind of sex difficult.
Q. Get them a damn wedding gift!: Prudie, I love you! But stop telling people that they don’t have to get their friends or family members wedding gifts. I know that the very nature of a gift is that it’s given willingly, but it’s just plain rude not to send a gift, and it’s not worth any potential awkwardness or resentment. It doesn’t have to be expensive! It doesn’t even have to cost money! The best wedding gift I received was a letter about what our love meant to a dear friend. This counts as a gift. If the happy couple’s love means nothing to you, send a $15 bottle of wine. And I’m not buying that “Everything on the registry is too expensive” excuse—there are spoons and spatulas and Swiffers and dozens of items under $20 on every registry I have ever had the pleasure of perusing. Just send something. How can it be harder to write a card than to write a letter to Prudence asking if you have to write a card?
A: Sending a card is a lovely alternative to sending a gift, if a gift is out of someone’s budget, and I think it’s always a good idea, whether someone can attend a wedding or not. But there are, sometimes, people for whom even a $20 gift is expensive, especially if they’re already spending money to attend the wedding, and I don’t think those people should feel as if they can’t, or shouldn’t, celebrate with their friends and loved ones. I certainly may fall outside of consensus opinion here, but I simply don’t believe that gifts ought to be mandatory, or that failing to receive one from every guest means that one has been slighted or that the joy of the day has been cheapened.
Q. Third time’s the charm: Last year, my childhood best friend asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. I was overcome with emotion and felt so honored that I immediately said yes. Well, fast forward to the present. She and her fiancé have called off their engagement and then gotten back together twice already. They still haven’t set a date. She’s told me to “be ready to save the date”—whatever that means?—and announced she expects me to fly across the country for her bachelorette, her bridal shower, then the actual wedding itself. I recently got a new job that comes with fewer vacation days than my old job. I know for a fact I won’t be able to take off work for all three of these events. Do I tell her now, to manage her expectations beforehand? Do I wait until these events actually materialize? But what if she’s upset I wasn’t more forthcoming as soon as I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend? Does the called-off engagement provide an acceptable excuse for not going to everything?
A: Flying across the country three times in a relatively short time frame is not a reasonable expectation that you should have known about when you agreed to serve as a bridesmaid. If she’s upset when you say, “I have a limited number of vacation days and won’t be able to attend all of these events, so here’s what I am available for,” then it’s not your responsibility to apologize or to make her feel better. You’re an adult with limitations on your time and budget—don’t feel guilty for not being able to meet unreasonable expectations. There’s also the question of whether you want to ask her how she feels about the wedding, having called it off twice already—if you’re close enough to serve as a bridesmaid, you may also be close enough to talk, carefully and openly, about why she thinks this third go-round on the engagement carousel (OK, don’t use that phrase) is different.
Q. Alone in Japan: My husband and I own a business and spend almost every day together. We have always traveled very well together in the past, but on our most recent trip I found him to be kind of a jerk. He micromanaged our schedule and packing routine, shot down ideas I had, and never wanted to do anything I wanted to do. He also has no patience for times when I want to slow down and read or journal in a café. He often interrupts what I’m doing to chat about his ideas.
We’re scheduled to spend two weeks in Japan in a few months, and I’d like to propose that we spend two to three days traveling apart during that time. I know he will hate this idea. We are fairly independent at home when we’re not working and don’t really keep tabs on each other, but when we’re traveling or hiking near home he gets very nervous when we split up even briefly. (It’s like when you visit home and your parents get worried when you’re not home by 10 p.m., even though you go months without them knowing where you are at all!)
I am not worried about hurting his feelings, but I am sure that he will say this will ruin the trip for him because he will be too nervous to enjoy himself. I just want to experience traveling solo and take a break from his anxieties. How should I approach this? (I am a woman, which I know makes him feel more protective of me, but I feel very confident about traveling alone.)
A: It can be difficult to raise an issue when you have good reason to believe your husband’s first response—and possibly his second and third—will be a bad one, but this is worth hashing out well in advance of your trip. Don’t simply say that you’d like a few days to yourself and leave it at that. Tell him what you told me—that he’s micromanaged your schedule, that you don’t feel listened to when you travel, that his interruptions and lack of patience often make traveling together unpleasant. The good thing is that if it’s out of character for him and he’s normally easy to be around, there’s reason to believe he can work on this particular habit and change. But the fact that you compare your husband on vacation to a worried parent sounds deeply unpleasant, and you should raise the issue now. (Also, consider whether you would like to occasionally schedule separate vacations—you may not have the time or resources to visit Japan separately, but you may want to take a weekend trip by yourself every once in a while.) If the mere suggestion of taking a few days to explore another country separately would overwhelm your husband so much that it would ruin the entire experience of traveling to Japan, then you might want to take this particular trip off the table for a while until you’ve been able to make some progress on how you travel together. Since the trip is still a few months away, you may have time to reschedule or rebook, and you certainly have plenty of time to hash out what you want and expect from each other.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone.
I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much? Read what Prudie had to say.
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