Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Weird ring backstory: My boyfriend proposed to me over Thanksgiving and gave me a drop-dead gorgeous ring. I love him and am so happy. My problem is the history of the ring. His much older sister had her marriage annulled three days after her wedding because she found her husband cheating. My boyfriend was just a kid at the time. His sister never remarried but kept the ring. I learned all this at dinner as his sister gave us her blessing and told us she was sure we would make a better go at it than she did. This all weirds me out. I loved the ring before, and it costs a lot more than either my boyfriend and I could afford with student loans. I haven’t told anyone about my feelings because I don’t want to hurt them, but the ring feels tainted now. I know I am being ridiculous, but I can’t stop. What can I do?
A: I don’t think it’s ridiculous to have qualms about the ring. On the one hand, it’s a piece of jewelry that can’t be “tainted” by a long-ago failed marriage. On the other hand, it’s a pretty big symbol of the commitment you and your fiancé are making to each other, and it’s going to be on your finger for a very long time, so you have every right to bring up your concerns. You can still tell him everything you told me, that you’re thrilled to be getting engaged, that you appreciate his sister’s generosity and are aware that it’s worth a lot of money, but that you’re not sure if you’re comfortable wearing a ring that will make you think about his sister getting cheated on whenever you look at it. The two of you can discuss possible next steps: Do you want to think about it together for a while? Do you want to come up with a ring budget you can both afford and go looking for one together before deciding whether to return it? Does he want to speak with his sister privately before you give the ring back?
It may be that just talking about your discomfort with your partner, and talking through your other options, will make you feel better. You might even end up making your peace with the ring’s past and appreciating it for what it is now. But don’t feel like your only options are 1) to swallow your concerns, or 2) to throw the ring back in his sister’s face and start a lifelong feud.
Q. Pyramid schemes: Lately I’ve noticed an increasing trend that is driving me crazy: Several of my friends have gotten involved in organizations that are clearly pyramid schemes. A few of them even seem like borderline cults. I live in a place where there are a lot of struggling creatives trying to “make it,” and these organizations and schemes prey on those who are financially and/or emotionally vulnerable. I’ve recently hurt some people’s feelings and was told I was being impolite by saying “no thanks” and, once, “no thanks, and I’d be careful, this sounds like a pyramid scheme” when asked to join. What is the best way to help a friend entrenched in a situation like this, and how do I make it clear that I’m not interested but that I still love and support them?
A: Saying “no thanks, and I’d be careful, this sounds like a pyramid scheme” is the mildest possible way of telling someone they’re involved in a pyramid scheme. I suppose that, instead of saying anything outright, you could have asked a series of leading questions designed to get them to the conclusion that “oh, this is a pyramid scheme.” But not everyone is going to make those connections, and frankly you might still have hurt their feelings once they realized the direction your questions were tending. I think your script is a good one! This is just unfortunately the kind of situation where most people who have already signed up are going to feel sensitive and defensive. When someone’s already decided “this company is going to be what enables me to get out of debt/become an entrepreneur/establish independence/support my career as an artist,” they’re not just financially but emotionally committing themselves to it. I think your best way forward is not to belabor the point, then continue to not only decline to participate if asked, but to express concern about the business model.
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Q. My ex-husband wants to get remarried on Mother’s Day: I’m divorced from the father of my three kids, who are 11, 9, and 5. My ex is engaged, and I get along with him and his fiancée. Last week they told me that it’s incredibly important to my ex’s fiancée to be married on her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. The trouble is that her parents were married on May 12, 1979—which will be Mother’s Day in 2019. They also want to be married in the same chapel, which is across the country. Our custody agreement would, of course, put our kids with me. I said no. Mother’s Day is important to me. My ex and his fiancée aren’t happy, and I can tell it’s going to cause tension, when before there was none. Am I being unreasonable?
A: I don’t think so. If Mother’s Day is an important holiday to you and you want to spend it with your children, and your custody agreement prioritizes time with you on that day, then I think it’s fair of you to say, “Can you two find another date?” Frankly, the fact that they left it until a mere five months before the date to check in with you makes me wonder just how important it can really be to them. I think you should continue to be kind and gracious but hold your ground on this one. If this is the only source of tension between you and your ex, then it will hopefully dissipate before too long.
Q. Boyfriend doesn’t “get” guests: My boyfriend and I have fundamental philosophical differences regarding the treatment of guests. As an example, he thinks it’s weird and fake that I go through extra effort to clean the apartment before we have a guest come to stay. I think it’s a common courtesy? He also gets offended if I put guests’ needs before his—for example, if I’m not free to do something he wants to do because I’m hosting someone from out of town. Some of our biggest fights have been about this!
This was one factor in our decision that he should move out of our shared apartment and that we should take it slow as we try to figure out if we’re compatible as a couple. But now I’m not so sure, because his move-out date coincided with—you guessed it!—a visit from a friend, which had been planned for months. He knew this upfront, and I tried to help him pack before she arrived. No dice; there was always something better for him to do. So, on the day of his move, I had planned to be showing my friend the sights of the city. All day I got guilt-inducing texts about how sad he is about leaving our apartment and how he has no help moving. In his mind, I should have left my friend to her own devices for a few hours so I could be there to give him emotional support.
I get that it’s an emotionally fraught situation—I was an emotional wreck at the thought of him leaving, too—but I feel that this would have been super rude of me. He only thinks about his own feelings and not my friend’s or about what a ridiculously awkward social situation he’s put me in. Part of me wants to drop him like a hot potato, but part of me still really cares about him. Am I stupid to want to try and make this relationship work?
A: Just as an aside, I would love to know what your boyfriend thinks is “fake” about cleaning an apartment before a guest arrives! “This dirt is really authentic to our relationship, and I want Moira to really get that during her visit.” But to answer your question: The only thing “fake” here is the self-created nonemergency your boyfriend is trying to guilt you over. The date of his moving out was not a surprise, you tried to help him for months, he chose to prioritize other things, and now, like the grasshopper and the ants, he’s trying to make you feel bad for his failure to plan.
When I was a kid, I used to ride horses. Invariably the kind of brisk, super-together women who ran the stables had signs on their offices with whimsical-yet-no-nonsense slogans like “A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine” and “I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow is not looking good either.” I lived in terror of displeasing them, and I hope they all live to be 100 years old. Channel a bit of these horsewomen’s energy as you try to continue your relationship in separate houses. Is he interested in being your partner, in supporting you even when he doesn’t feel the same way about a particular situation? Or is he interested in making you feel unreasonable for wanting to have guests and letting him take responsibility for his own choices? If it’s the latter, well, you can still care about him while also letting that hot potato serve as your guide.
Q. Re: Weird ring backstory: Acknowledging the fact that there is no such thing as a “tainted” ring or any attached bad luck, there are still some compromises that you can make. One idea is to have the main stone reset into a different setting. Rather than keeping the “tainted” ring exactly the same, you are creating something new. Another option is to see if you can find a jeweler who would be willing to give you a good price on a diamond exchange for a new ring. You’d probably have to pay a little more for a new setting and a new diamond. I traded in a previous engagement ring to buy my wife’s engagement ring, with her knowledge and approval. She didn’t feel right wearing the ring exactly as it was presented before, but had no problem using it as an exchange for her own ring.
A: Those are great options and worth discussing with your fiancé. He may also have a better sense of how his sister might feel about having it reset or simply returned. That’s the tricky thing with heirloom jewelry, it seems. Sometimes it’s a gift that comes with certain unspoken conditions, like “You can have this as long as you never change it, but if you change it, then I’d want it back.”
Q. Permission to sleep with others gone bad: I’ve been with my boyfriend for five years. We are very much in love and have a great relationship. Our only problem is that our sex life has never been the greatest. He has consistently come up with excuses to avoid sex, which has left me extremely frustrated. Every several months I would complain. He would acknowledge there was a problem but do nothing about it. In the last year he has said several times that I could sleep with other people to deal with my sexual frustration. Well, I did—and was not proud of it. He found out through old texts, and our relationship is in turmoil. He is talking about moving out, sleeping with someone else to get over the anger, etc. I know at the end of the day I cheated, but I am frustrated that he told me to do it and then responded the way he has. Am I being manipulated? I want to save this relationship. I just don’t know how to navigate this complicated situation.
A: Yes, you’re being manipulated, and your boyfriend is being secretive, withholding, and frustratingly inconsistent. Whatever’s going on with him when it comes to sex in your relationship, if he’s not willing to be honest about what he wants—and doesn’t want!—then there’s only so much you can do to save the relationship. If his proposed solution to your current problem is “Maybe I should sleep with someone else to get rid of my anger,” then I don’t have high hopes for his ability to start being more honest and open about his feelings. He’s pushed you away and suggested you seek intimacy from other people instead of him, then wants to punish you for taking him at his word. If he’s not willing to acknowledge his own role in this situation, I think you may need to let this “great relationship” go.
Q. Health-shaming husband: Six months ago, my husband and I moved to a city in the mountains. He has adapted well to living at altitude, but I still get out of breath very easily. He has started “health-shaming” me about this, scolding me whenever I have an extra helping of dessert, lecturing me about buying juice at the grocery store, and pestering me to go to the gym more, even when I’ve just gotten home from a workout. Since I feel generally healthy and am not overweight, I plan to get tested for asthma, anemia, and other conditions that might explain my symptoms. What can I say in the meantime to get my husband off my back? When I say that his comments make me feel bad about my body, he replies that I’m being too sensitive—or that I’d feel better about myself if I did more cardio.
A: “At this point, I’m not asking you to support me as I try to take care of my own health. All I’m asking is for you to stop undermining and discouraging me. Lecturing me about juice or telling me to go back to the gym when I’ve just come home from the gym doesn’t help my shortness of breath, and it makes me want to be far away from you. Whether or not you think I ought to be ‘less sensitive’ about this, it’s not your job to train me into insensitivity. You know these comments are unhelpful and that I don’t like them. Let me handle my own doctor’s visits and health, and find something else to talk about.”
Q. Getting back out there: I’m a bi woman who recently got out of a long-term relationship with a man. It’s been a couple months since the breakup, and I’ve decided to date casually. I’ve thought practically about what that means for me at this stage of my life, and I look forward to having some lighthearted fun after a troubled relationship. However, I’m finding myself hesitant to go on dates with women. When I began my recent relationship, I was in college and pretty sexually inexperienced. Now, I’m in my mid-20s and still have only slept with women a couple of times (and it’s been a while). If I ever start a potentially serious relationship with a woman, I’ll just be upfront with her about my sexual history. But since I want to date casually, I’m not sure if I want to be that vulnerable with a woman, either by admitting my inexperience or by sleeping with a woman for the first time since I was 18. I also don’t know if it’s too much to have a conversation like that with someone I might only go on a couple of dates with. Is there a specific way I should approach this? Should I just see men casually and then also start seeing women when I want a serious relationship?
A: With the necessary caveat that you can do or date anyone you want, I think if you start seeing men casually now and plan on dating women later, you’re increasing the odds that you’ll end up getting into another relationship with a man. (Which, again, is totally fine, etc.!) But if you would like to date men and women both—and it sounds like you do—but you’re unsure how to do so casually with women, then I think it may help to remember that most first (and even second or third) dates do not have to involve the question, “So, how many times have you dated women before today?” These dates don’t have to involve going into your dating or sexual history at all, even. You can talk about work, about TV, about your hobbies, about whatever else you want to talk about. Instead of thinking of men as a gender you have “expertise” with and women as a gender you’ve got “novice status” with, think of it this way: Every time you go out with an individual person, you’re going out with that person for the first time, and your previous experiences are nontransferable. If the only thing that’s holding you back from dating women casually is the sense that you have to disclose your asymmetrical dating experience, please let yourself off the hook.
Q. Re: My ex-husband wants to get remarried on Mother’s Day: Conspicuously absent from the question was what do the kids want to do that day? 11-, 9-, and (to a lesser extent) 5-year-olds are old enough to include in this decision. You are making them miss a very important event for their father because of your personal feelings about the day. What if they want to be there for their father? If they want to be there, and you insist on not letting them be there, at the very least you should work with them to do something special (a special video greeting/card?) for their father and stepmother.
A: I’m not sure I buy the framing that the letter writer is “making” her kids do anything. The ex and his fiancée came to her to ask about this particular date, presumably because they realized that there was a significant conflict. If the ex were truly concerned about not putting the kids in a difficult position, I should think he would have raised the issue with his wife-to-be sooner. Mother’s Day may be a slightly arbitrary holiday, but I think it could be just as easily argued that it’s not necessary to share a wedding anniversary with one’s parents. If the venue is already booked for that day and there’s absolutely no moving it, then sure, the letter writer may decide to be the bigger person and let it go for this year. But I don’t think she’s being petty for wanting to have her kids on Mother’s Day, and she didn’t create this situation.
Q. Need good, neutral wording: I want to send a Christmas card to an adult niece-by-marriage and her son. She has cut me from her life, I think because I suggested that by cutting her mother from her life, she was teaching her son that was an acceptable option for people. She seemed to take it well, but I never saw her again after that (we live in the same town), and she stopped responding to emails. Unsolicited advice was common in my family, and we were all free to take it or leave it, so I didn’t think that it might be unwelcome (my bad). She did ask my husband, her uncle, for help moving a few years ago, but that has been the only contact. Her son is three years older than mine. My son adored his older cousin, so the yearslong estrangement was hard for him at first. I sent an apology email a couple of years ago, which was unanswered. She recently dropped by her mother’s house, so I’d like to reach out with a card in case she would like to end the estrangement but isn’t sure how. What could I write on the card that says something to the effect of “Thinking about you and your son this holiday season” without causing further offense? Just that, which seems so impersonal—is that OK? Should I not send a card, since she hasn’t reached out either?
A: I think you have some slight reason to hope, if your niece has recently re-established contact with her mother. It sounds like you have reasonably low expectations, which is good, and that you’re aware of your own part in the estrangement and don’t plan on offering unsolicited advice to her again, so I’m tentatively optimistic. “Thinking of you” is friendly but also not overly intimate. Since your previous attempt at an apology was rebuffed, I think it’s wise to keep this attempt simple. Find a nice card, inscribe it with a sentiment along the lines of “Thinking of you/Hope you’re well,” and hope for change. If you don’t hear back, you haven’t lost anything.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Q. Breastfeeding mother-in-law: I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse, so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn’t bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room, I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We’re at an impasse. Should we call the police? I’m hesitant to let her near my son again.
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