Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Welcome back, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Christmas gift conundrum: My stepfather’s birthday is Christmas Day. In the last few years, he has converted to evangelical Christianity. Last year, in lieu of birthday and Christmas presents, he asked us to donate in his name to Samaritan’s Purse, which we did. I was raised as a Southern Baptist but am now an atheist. I really don’t feel comfortable sending money to Samaritan’s Purse. Would it be inappropriate to donate to a similar, secular organization instead? Am I wrongly imposing my values on an innocuous gift request?
A: If a group of people decide collectively they want to offer charitable donations in one another’s names and call that a gift, I guess I can get behind it, but at a certain point—like if someone says “once a year everyone needs to make a donation to a specific charity in my name”—we’ve wandered so far afield from what a gift is that I’m not sure it’s the right word anymore. Just because your stepfather is religious and Christmas is ostensibly a religious holiday doesn’t mean you have to donate to an organization you can’t in good conscience support. Yes, find a secular group that does good work and make a donation there instead. You’re not “wrongly imposing your values” by refraining from giving money to an organization you don’t support.
Q. How do I keep my partner from poisoning our relationships with neighbors?: My partner is generally a kind, thoughtful person. But when he is unhappy with something the neighbors are doing, instead of trying to address it and resolve it, he responds in a nasty way. For example, the south-side neighbors pruned a tree, and some small branches fell on our lawn. Instead of just putting the branches in the compost bin, he threw the branches in their front yard. The north-side neighbors put a plastic garbage bag next to their trash can, because their can was full. Crows tore open the bag and strew garbage all over the street. Instead of just picking up the strewn trash and putting it in our half-empty can, my partner wanted to put it on the neighbor’s front porch. I stopped him, but he was angry with me for interfering.
I’ve told him I think this kind of behavior is unhelpful and passive aggressive, but he won’t stop. I don’t want to have a tense relationship with our neighbors. I’m not passive or conflict-avoidant. I’m fine with discussing issues with people when the situation warrants it, but I don’t think it’s wise to make a fuss over such small things. It’s easy enough to resolve these issues—I can’t understand why he insists on going down the Hatfields vs. McCoys road. How do we resolve this difference in approach?
A: Yeah, your husband’s approach to resolving low-level frustrations with the neighbors is definitely one of unnecessary escalation and lashing-out. It’d be one thing to ask your neighbors to help pick up the trash, or remind them that if they have more trash bags than trash can, that they should make alternate arrangements for disposal, but wanting to put crow-opened trash on their porch for a first offense definitely smacks of unresolved anger issues. I don’t know why your husband’s dark side comes out with your neighbors, and I can’t promise you that it’s going to go away overnight, but I’m glad that you were at least able to stop him last time, and I think it’s worth following up with him: What’s his goal when he wants to throw things in other people’s yards? What aspect of his life does he feel like is threatened when a few branches end up on your lawn? What’s he afraid is going to happen if he doesn’t establish his property boundaries as terrifying and sacrosanct? Why does he think it’s not worth trying to talk to your neighbors, when he’s clearly capable of talking about disagreements in his personal and professional life? Get him to think about those questions and you might be able to figure out a way forward.
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Q. Formerly a friend with benefits: A former friend with benefits and I recently ended things. He is dating someone else. I developed feelings for him. He wants to remain friends, but I’m going through heartbreak thinking about him. He says he misses me, but it’s not in the same way that I miss him. I’m not sure what to do. Can I be friends with him? Or should I cut him off?
A: You may very well end up being friends in a few months or years, but you certainly don’t have to transform overnight into his totally-platonic friend who’s super supportive of his new relationship. Tell him that you’ll get in touch when you’re ready to reconnect but that right now you need time and space to get over your feelings. That doesn’t mean you’re cutting him off, it just means you’re a human being who can’t switch gears instantly. Even people who are close with their exes usually don’t go from lovers to besties overnight—there’s a long period of adjustment in the middle where everyone can go and lick their wounds in private.
Q. My brother and his crew: I live with my mother, as I don’t currently have a job. The problem is that so does my brother, his wife, and their four children. They like to go out without the kids but seem to have a problem with asking for help. They say they do, but the way they “ask” is: “The kids are downstairs watching a movie. We should be back in a couple of hours.” I finally told them, rather loudly, that I would refuse to help unless they ask me directly, “Would you watch our kids?” It has had no effect, and I am looking to get out as soon as possible. I have even walked out the door, barefoot, during the winter, which upset them very much. I was told that I was being “unreasonable.” Short of becoming homeless—which would be preferable—do you have any suggestions?
A: I definitely suggest keeping shoes by the door, along with a short-term emergency kit of things you might need to keep yourself entertained on an impromptu trip out of the house. I assume you’re already looking for work and other cheap housing options, but I’d put special emphasis on that task right now. I agree that your brother’s habit sounds frustrating, but since you are able to get out of these impromptu babysitting sessions when you’re not asked in advance, I don’t think it’s worth losing your home over. Continue to be available to look after the kids when you’re asked in advance, take a walk or visit a friend or work on your résumé in a coffee shop when it’s sprung on you in the last second, stay as polite as possible when you say no, and good luck finding a job and an apartment in the new year.
Q. In-law outsider: I’ve been with my boyfriend for several years. We are in our late 20s, and although I don’t feel the need to tie the knot for another couple of years, I cannot imagine building a family and future with anyone else. The only issue is that we come from very different backgrounds. His family comes from a very small, very tightknit religious community (it has about 100,000 observants in the U.S.). My family is Irish-Catholic. My background is of great concern to his parents, and for this reason, they have not warmed up to our relationship.
I feel guilty for being a wedge between him and his family. I understand that, being such a small minority, they do not enjoy a great deal of cultural security in America. But I don’t believe it’s right of them to express disappointment with their son. I wish they could recognize that their son and I found loving, supportive partners in each other, and be excited for us. I am always at a loss over what to do or say when the subject comes up. I feel far too insensitive telling my boyfriend, “They’re wrong to pressure you like this,” because I do sympathize with their concern. More than that, a good relationship with his family is something I desperately want. At the very least, I don’t want to continue being their upsetting elephant in the room. How do I bridge the gap and help his parents build faith in our relationship?
A: I think rather than trying to help your boyfriend’s parents build faith in you, since that’s a relationship that’s shaky to begin with, you should focus on supporting your boyfriend, who loves you and wants to be with you. Be honest when you’re not sure what the next right move is: “I don’t know what to say right now, because I wish they wouldn’t pressure you to leave a relationship that makes you happy, but I also know that your faith is something you’ve had to fight for to protect in this country. What can I do to help?” Talking about what you two can do as a team will be helpful. Your boyfriend might want to talk to other people his age who share his background but aren’t members of his actual family to see what’s helped them in similar situations. You’ll need, I think, to acknowledge that while you might want a good relationship with his family desperately, you can’t create one single-handedly, and for the time being polite distance is the most you can accomplish.
Q. How do you address a co-worker who yells?: I have a co-worker whose response to, “These are the rules we have to follow,” in regard to, well, anything, is rage and yelling. For example, when I explained that we had to fill out a form to submit a change to our work hours, she responded with a loud sigh and “That just pisses me off!” at a volume so loud that others came running to see if we were having a fight! This happens frequently enough that people are visibly uncomfortable. Is this something we need to discuss with her boss, or can we address it with her directly? It’s getting to where nobody wants to talk to her directly for fear of hearing these loud tirades.
A: I think speaking to her first is the next move, although I can appreciate why no one’s been eager to bring it up. If she responds badly or nothing changes, then you can approach her boss, and/or HR, to ask for help with the issue. In the meantime, whenever she erupts, respond with, “Please stop shouting” or “I’ll come back in a few minutes and we can try to discuss this again.” Postpone whatever you’re working on with her, if you can, until she’s able to speak at a reasonable volume.
Q. Ticked-off musician: I am a songwriter. I’m currently working on an album with my bandmates, but a few songs I’ve recorded myself are up on SoundCloud. I hate most of these, and they’re badly recorded. I’m in the process of downloading them and removing them from the site. An older family member of mine is unaware of this. She has asked me, for Christmas, to give her two CDs of all my songs, one for her personal use and one she can take to her dance class for her dance teacher to use in class. In order to do this, I will have to rerecord all of the songs and have my bandmate mix and master them. She is now aware that this cannot happen by Christmas. I said I wished she had asked me earlier, at which point she reminded me that she had asked me for the same thing last year (when, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have the resources to do this properly).
Requests like this make me angry. First off, I hate the way my family just offhandedly asks me for my music like it’s no big deal after watching how much effort goes into it. For example, my mum used to make me to play at her Christmas parties when I was younger. Second, none of these songs have been properly released, and most of the older ones are badly written. I don’t want them to be heard by the general public. That’s on top of the significant amount of work it would entail. I don’t think she gets it—fine, most nonmusicians wouldn’t—but trying to explain this to her would most likely result in hurt feelings. I don’t know what to do. Help please.
A: Rather than continue to put a ton of time and effort into a project that makes you anxious and angry, I think you should level with your relative. I don’t think you’ll be able to deliver this to her without hurting her feelings, given how much familywide resentment you’re carrying around about your music already, so I think being honest about why you’re abandoning the project is the best bet. I can certainly relate to saying yes to something you don’t want to say yes to, then dragging your feet and handing over the finished project begrudgingly, and it’s a pattern I think that you’re going to have to drop if you want to be happy. If you’re in the process of scrubbing these songs from SoundCloud and don’t want to rerecord them, just tell your relative: “I’m sorry I didn’t say this sooner, but I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I’m not proud of this early work and I’m in the process of deleting it and don’t want to rerecord it. I’m so glad that you liked it, and it’s genuinely kind of you to want to share it with your dance class, but I’m not going to be able to do it.” Then find her a Christmas present she’ll actually enjoy, and practice saying “no”—politely!—to requests that make you angry.
Parenting Advice From Care and Feeding
Q. My toddler really, really, really wants to take pictures of her vagina with my phone: How can I explain to her why I cannot and she shouldn’t do this, without causing her shame, but also without having to go into dark territory about child pornography that I’m definitely not ready to explain?
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