Dear Prudence

Help! My Co-Workers’ Perfume Makes Me Physically Ill.

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

Man holding nose to avoid a smell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by iStock/Getty Images.

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

Q. Office perfume etiquette: I work in a small office with about 12 other people, all women except one man. It’s a small space and as the front desk admin, I have to interact with everyone throughout the day. I unfortunately get frequent migraines (averaging two per week), which are very painful and challenging to deal with. They happen so often that I can’t use my sick days to get through them, so I’m regularly in pain at work. Over the past two years I’ve tried working with a doctor to lessen these attacks, to no avail.

My problem is that my migraines are sometimes triggered, and certainly aggravated, by perfume and other chemical scents. About five of the women in my office wear strong and heavy perfume every day. I can’t avoid my co-workers and am not able to close a door to cut myself off from the parade of competing floral and powder scents that waft past me every few minutes. What can I do to deal with this in a respectful, effective way? I’ve explained my problem to a few of the women and asked, very kindly and apologetically, if they could wear less perfume to the office, but none of them have made the effort to do so. One woman started wearing more instead! I feel like a jerk for dictating such a personal habit to people I have to get along with every day. But I’m in agony, and it’s driving me insane. Please help!

A: How awful that one of your co-workers responded to your request by wearing more perfume than before—that’s baffling, unnecessary, and cruel. I feel like there’s been a cultural tipping point over the last few years, and most people are at least aware that sensitivity to perfumes and colognes can be a pretty common migraine trigger. I’m sorry that asking individuals politely hasn’t helped. I think your next move needs to be talking to your boss and HR, if you have an HR department. Framing this as a medical issue (and a workplace productivity issue—you can’t be useful as a front desk admin if you’re at home or on the verge of passing out) will hopefully get some weight behind your request.

Has anyone had luck getting co-workers hooked on perfume to cut down? Do signs help? Air purifiers tucked behind the desk? Let us know.

Q. Sleeping pills and consent: I’ve had insomnia all my life. I currently take prescribed sleeping meds that can leave me pretty out of it. Sleep is very precious to me, as it’s so hard to come by and a lack of it can trigger a weeklong migraine. My husband of 20 years often tries to get frisky when I’m not fully coherent. Most recently, after rebuffing his advances, he said, “It’s not like you’re going to remember this.” So not only was he waking me from a limited resource, he was using the fact that I would not remember to justify … I don’t know what. Marital relations? Assault? Rape? He swears he doesn’t remember this interaction, but it’s all I can think about. I’ve been known to do and say things I don’t remember while on these meds, so it’s possible that I have consented in the past. Do I stop taking these meds, so that I can be more aware of my surroundings? Kick him out? Have him arrested?

A: I’m so sorry. It’s absolutely heartbreaking that you’re considering discontinuing medication that allows you to sleep and profoundly improves your quality of life in order to be “more aware” of your surroundings and to be on guard against your husband. You say that he has a habit of trying to have sex with you when you’re fading in and out of consciousness, and has attempted to justify pushing past your limits based on the fact that this medication affects your memory. I don’t think he’s actually forgotten that he said this. I think this is the continuation of a pattern where he sees your vulnerability as something to be manipulated and exploited. I can understand that it must be painful to see your husband of 20 years in such an ugly light, and I imagine that’s part of why you’re hoping you can justify or explain away his behavior with, “Sometimes I say things I don’t remember on these meds, so maybe I’ve offered him a blanket consent that I would be honor-bound to uphold even if I forgot about it.” But you’re not honor-bound by the things you may or may not have said while under the influence of strong sleep medication, and the fact that your husband keeps trying to do this while you’re medicated—and not, say, having a conversation about what is and isn’t OK, in the middle of the day when you’re totally coherent—tells me he isn’t behaving honorably, doesn’t respect your desires or boundaries, and is looking to see what he can get away with while also trying to get you to doubt your own memories.

Whatever you decide to do next—and I do think you should kick him out and consider all of your options, up to and including filing a report—remember this: The last time you turned your husband’s physical advances down, he attempted to keep going and justified himself by saying that you’d probably forget about it. Ever since that day, you haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. You’re talking about discontinuing important medication in order to maintain constant vigilance, like a soldier under threat. You don’t live with someone who values your safety. You’re not responsible for the fact that he’s tried to take advantage of you, you didn’t invite this by taking medication, and you’re not misunderstanding him now.

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Q. Threesome: My husband recently asked me whether I’m open to having a threesome, and I answered with an unsure “yes,” operating under the assumption that he plans on doing this with a third party who has no personal or professional relationship with us. He expressed happiness with my answer, for which I’m glad, but then he immediately talked enthusiastically about doing it with his co-worker who’s also our friend. This led me to think that he may have been considering this for quite some time. I thought it explained why he’d been telling her more dirty jokes in the past few weeks. My self-esteem took a bit of a hit, of course, but more importantly, my thought process on this has been thrown out of whack. I think I still believe that I’m willing to engage in a threesome for my husband’s benefit—I think a marriage needs some spicing up from time to time—I just don’t like his version of the idea. Can you help me sort this out?

A: “I’m happy to talk about the possibility of a threesome with someone we don’t already know”—there’s definitely at least something of a parallel here with the family from a few letters back looking for a therapist who can see them all but doesn’t already work with one of them—“but I’m not comfortable having a threesome with someone we already know or who works with either one of us. I’m also concerned about how far you’ve already gone down the path to intimacy with this co-worker, and I want to know more about that so we can get back on solid ground in terms of our relationship first. I want something we can talk about and plan together, something we both find exciting and invigorating and that ultimately brings us closer together. I don’t want you to make decisions without me, or to secretly start building up fantasies with friends of ours, and then try to involve me at the last minute so you don’t have to feel like you’re flirting with being unfaithful.”

Q. I need a friend, not a sales rep: I moved to a new community about two years ago, a suburb of a major city. I had a great plan for how to make new friends and find my place (clubs, PTO, church). So far none of it has been working. My kids are in high school, and all the women I meet through clubs are retirees. Nice ladies, but a lot older and with a different lifestyle. Plus, the club activities don’t time well with my schedule—chick flick outings at 4 p.m., right when my kids are getting home from school. The PTO is very cliquey. The people at church are a lot older or a lot younger. It has been a struggle, but I keep working at it. Here’s what is really driving me crazy! I have met a few women in my demographic who seem nice, and I suggested having lunch or coffee. We went and it was nice. I fully realize that they are already established and don’t need me the same way I need them. But the only time they initiate doing something with me, it’s a sales party at their home. I can’t tell you how many times I have been excited to open an email, thinking they wanted to get together, but instead it’s just an invitation to an open house to buy overpriced jewelry, clothes, handbags, etc. Have friendships changed so much? Is it just me, or is this weird?

A: It’s definitely weird, it’s definitely mushroomed in recent years, and it’s definitely not the path to lasting, genuine friendships. RSVP no to any parties that have buying tchotchkes you don’t need as a core element (and even parties that just smell like they might—trust your instincts). If you really like the host, you might say, “I’m not in the market, but let me know if you’d ever like to get lunch or catch a movie together when you’re not working.” Otherwise, keep looking for friendship elsewhere.

Q. Helping when you can’t remember what it’s like: How can I be more supportive of my struggling friends? I know this question has been answered a thousand times, but I feel stupid because I’m specifically having trouble with things I’ve gone through myself. I was depressed and suicidal and financially struggling for years, probably half my life. Only in the last 18 months have I been happy to be alive, had enough food to eat, etc. But as a result, it’s like I can no longer connect to the part of myself that was in 24/7 despair. When a friend reaches out to me, I find myself parroting meaningless platitudes—I know you’re strong enough to get through this, things will be better soon, hang in there—even though I know from experience they don’t work. But I don’t know what to say! I can’t remember what I wanted to hear. I feel like an idiot, because my experience should make me more helpful, not less. How can I actually relate and help, instead of babbling about keeping your chin up and trying yoga?

A: There’s a lot to be said in favor of the simple acknowledgment when someone else is in pain, I think: “I’m so sorry you’re hurting. I wish there was something I could do to fix it. Thank you for telling me. I love you.” If the friend is nearby and you can spare the time, you might also follow it up with an offer to connect or help: “Do you want me to come over?”

Q: Sex with no benefits: I started a casual sexual relationship with a very good friend of mine. Initially I was very into it, which made our interactions pretty enjoyable. I also felt optimism that if the sex wasn’t perfect to start with, it would only get better with time. But as we’ve got more and more intimate, it’s just got worse. Because it’s casual, we never talk about the things we do or what either of us like, and I always feel too awkward in the moment to say that I don’t like something or even that he’s doing something uncomfortable or outright painful.

I’m now fairly disenchanted with the whole thing and just go along with it, even though I don’t really want to, because I am worried I’ll lose him as a friend if I say I want to stop the physical stuff. How do I fix the sexual side, or should I just abandon it altogether?

A: It’s worth pointing out that a casual sexual relationship doesn’t mean it’s rude or inappropriate or too serious to talk about what you do and don’t like, or to say, “Hey, that hurts.” You do not have to save “Hey, that hurts” for someone you think you’re going to get serious with! At this point, since you’re “fairly disenchanted with the whole thing,” I think you should end the sexual side of this relationship, because I don’t think there’s any amount of conversation that can revive attraction and chemistry when you’re this turned off by the guy. But I’m worried that you feel internal pressure to keep having sex you’re not enjoying because you’re afraid otherwise he’ll stop being your friend! If he’s said or done anything to imply that he’s going to bail on your friendship unless you keep sleeping with him, then his friendship isn’t worth having. If this pressure is internal—if you fear that he’ll simply lose interest in you unless you give him what you think he wants—then I think it would be worth spending some time after you break things off figuring out how to develop your own sense of self-worth. It’s totally understandable to feel nervous about discussing what you like in bed, especially when it’s someone you’ve known for a long time but never used to sleep with. But letting that nervousness keep you from speaking up when you’re having a terrible time or experiencing pain isn’t resulting in an enjoyable sex life, a stronger friendship, or any fun for you. Let this one go, but figure out how you’re going to start speaking up for yourself in future relationships, because I don’t think you want to go through this cycle again with someone else.

Q. Re: Office perfume etiquette: There have been lawsuits about this! Fragrance sensitivity can be a disability that your employer has to accommodate. If further meetings with HR and your boss don’t go anywhere, ask your doctor for a letter indicating that you have this issue and that it can be accommodated by having a fragrance-free workplace, and formally request that accommodation from HR or your boss.

A: That’s the way to go, I think! And after that, if you have co-workers who double down on the fragrance, I think you can politely—but loudly—ask them to wash it off.

Q. High holidays: My husband’s daughter wants to bring her 4-year-old daughter to our house for a few days at Christmas; he is excited about this because normally they go to his ex-wife’s house for the holiday. My problem is that his daughter smokes pot constantly. I know it’s legal, and she has self-diagnosed and self-prescribed weed to help her mental illnesses, but I have a problem with her lighting up in my house. I once was a heavy pot smoker, so much that it caused terrible problems in my life, and I have fought to remain sober for 25 years. But I have not lost the cravings.

I want him to ask her not to smoke weed in or around our home. He says I should talk to her, but she and I don’t have the best relationship. I feel like my husband is making me into the evil stepmother. To make matters worse, my conservative 82-year-old father and his new girlfriend also want to come. So there is a double reason to dread marijuana smoke wafting through the house. My father will go ballistic and may even leave in a huff. Honestly, I feel like getting a last-minute ticket to Mexico and telling everyone I’m not doing Christmas this year. My mother died two years ago on Christmas, so I already hate the holiday. This makes it much worse. Am I just being a scrooge? Am I asking too much that his daughter not light up in our home? Am I wrong in asking him to tell her she can’t smoke in or around our home?

A: I really want to encourage you to get that last-minute ticket out of town and tell everyone that you’ll be back in the new year. At the very least, I want your husband to back you up, rather than say, “Eh, you tell my daughter she can’t smoke weed in the house, I don’t really care about your sobriety.” Just imagine, for a minute, getting through the temporary disappointment of your dad and husband and daughter-in-law and finding yourself on a beach Christmas Day. You’re not cooking for anyone, you’re not trying to juggle and accommodate several conflicting schedules and desires. Consider that ticket!

I think the way to go is to tell your husband that he can invite his daughter if he’s also willing to tell her that your house is drug-free and if that doesn’t work for her, she’ll need to find a hotel to stay at nearby. If he’s not willing or able to extend the invitation under those circumstances, then his daughter can celebrate Christmas with friends or at home with her daughter. As for you, would you like to have Christmas with your father? Or do you feel like you have to? Why is the burden of hosting everyone in the family falling on you, and what’s your husband doing to help? And how much are those tickets to Mexico again?

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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Classic Prudie

Q. Too close for comfort: I recently caught my fiancé and his sister together and broke up with him. I’d always gotten a strange feeling about their closeness, but I didn’t believe it until I saw with my own eyes. To my family and friends, it seems like I woke up one morning and decided not to get married. Everyone is pushing me to work things out with my fiancé. Initially, I wanted to keep what I saw between them and me. If I tell people they have an incestuous relationship, it would probably destroy their lives. I know they’re barely functioning and terrified I will tell people about them. I’m worried I will seem spiteful if I tell even a few trusted loved ones the real reason I called off the wedding. At the same time, I’m heartbroken too and don’t know how much longer I can handle lectures about “letting a good man get away.” Should I stay quiet or speak up?