Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My boss might be cheating on my co-worker: I recently moved to a new country after graduating college and was lucky enough to get a marketing job (my field of study) in an exciting industry. One of my responsibilities is managing our social media accounts. The company Instagram account is somehow connected to my boss’s personal account, which results in me getting notifications from his direct messages. Although it’s never incriminatingly sexually explicit, I’ve recently seen messages with multiple women talking about sex. This is in a different language, so some of this could be going over my head, but there are frequently flirty messages, talk of sex, and talk of having sex. This whole situation is complicated by the fact that my boss is in a relationship with one of my co-workers. I work with both of them closely. I also consider both of them friends, and friends are hard to come by as a young professional in a new country. If I were my boss’s significant other, I know I would want to be told about these kinds of messages. Should I ignore it? Discreetly advise my boss that I can see his personal messages? Flee the country?
A: I don’t know if HR departments are common in your new country, but if they are, I think I’d go there in addition to vaguely flagging the issue to your boss: “We need to set up a company-only Instagram account because as long as it’s linked with yours, I continue to receive direct messages intended for Boss’ personal account.” I’m a little worried that anyone who’s clumsy and unprofessional enough to link his work account with the Instagram he uses to cheat on his girlfriend might also try to retaliate if you speak up, so I want you to have as much professional cover as possible. But I certainly think you should say something. This is ridiculous.
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Q. My very chatty preschoolers: A few years ago my brother “Sterling” married his boyfriend, “Cooper.” Cooper is a great guy and we love him. He’s also a moderately famous athlete. Cooper isn’t out to the public. I understand and respect this decision: His field can be homophobic and he’s already sick of being seen as the token representative for his race.
By request, I don’t talk about my relationship with Cooper with anyone other than my closest friends, and I don’t share pictures of him on social media. I have twins who are young preschoolers. They adore their uncles. They are, in the way of preschoolers, very chatty. If they see a ball of yarn they will shout, “My nana knits!” and if they see a ball they will shout, “My uncle Cooper plays that!”
I’m worried my kids are going to out Cooper in a way that causes heartache. I’m also worried that they won’t understand that just because our relationship to Cooper is private doesn’t mean it’s shameful. Do you have any advice?
A: You can have age-appropriate conversations with them about coming out/not coming out and why some people might choose to do either, but don’t run yourself ragged trying to make sure a pair of preschoolers become the soul of discretion overnight. They’re unlikely to set up a press conference anytime soon, and plenty of kids talk about informal “uncle” relationships to family friends that don’t necessarily mean everyone who hears “My uncle plays that!” will immediately jump to “Hang on, these kids don’t have an aunt. … He must be an uncle by gay marriage.” You are working reasonably hard to help keep your brother-in-law in the closet, but you don’t have to arrange your entire life in such a way that you work overtime to keep two 4-year-olds muffled.
This question was also answered in Slate’s Care and Feeding column. Read what Rumaan Alam had to say.
Q. Should I give up my dream of working in a museum? I am 25 and at a career crossroads. I’m trying to build a career in the incredibly competitive field of museums. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are from prestigious schools, I’ve had several unpaid internships, and I previously worked one full year in a full-time position at a museum. When my partner was offered an incredible job in a big city with many museums, we jumped at the opportunity. I thought I’d find a job in no time. Despite my credentials, networking, meetings with the directors of top museums, doing months of unpaid work, and making it to several final rounds for jobs, I am still unemployed. Now that I’m coming up on a year since I started my search, I’m emotionally exhausted. I feel that I’ve made a huge mistake choosing this career path now that I know how competitive it is. After working with a career coach, I’m considering going in a completely different direction (HR), since it’s an industry with many more opportunities, and it’s more flexible in terms of location. I know I would be good at this job because it fits my personality and skills, but I’m so afraid of throwing away six years of working toward a museum career. I’m torn between my head and my heart. Should I go in a much more practical direction that will provide me with job security or keep trying to “make it” in this impossible field? The kicker is I’m turning 26 in six months and need a full-time job with benefits by then, so if I’m switching gears, I need to get started ASAP.
A: I think you know already that the short-term answer is prioritizing any job over a museum job. Since no museum jobs appear to be available, the right thing to do right now is to take the first reasonable-sounding HR job you’re offered. But that doesn’t mean you’re throwing away the past six years of your life or that you’ll never be able to try to change careers later on. You can still set up informational interviews with museum employees, keep your eyes out for other pertinent job listings, stay in touch with the directors you’ve had lunch with, etc. It’s not an either-or decision. Do what you need to do right now to make sure you have health insurance and can pay your bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to permanently resign yourself to never working in a museum again.
Q. Husband doesn’t care: I consider myself to be a happily married person, and I adore my husband. I am also an alcoholic. I was sober for a long time but have been relapsing and drinking once or twice a week. I think that it might be important to say that I am a quiet, non-argumentative drunk for this story. When I drink I tend to sit on my deck alone until I go to bed. My point with this is simply to say that I am not arguing with or in other ways “bothering” my husband. He’s usually in a different part of the house. I also still get up and function (get the kids up, go to work) the next day. Last night, after I had been drinking to the point that I was intoxicated, I told my husband that I needed to run out and gas up the car so that it was ready for the nanny in the morning. I then asked him if he would like to do it. He told me to go ahead. I drove the 2 miles, gassed up the car, and returned the vehicle without incident. I thought he didn’t realize that I was drunk. I came home, he had sex with me, and then I went to bed. This morning I told my husband that I have been having suicidal thoughts, that I can’t get my drinking back under control, that it terrified me that I drove drunk—something that I never do—and that I really needed help. I asked him if I could go to an AA meeting this evening. He agreed on the spot. This is the problem: He then told me he knew I was drunk last night when I drove. Despite my asking him to go, he told me to go instead, knowing I was intoxicated. He also had no problem having sex with me in this state—something that happens often and bothers me, but I have never addressed with him because I feel so ashamed of my drinking. Ultimately, I bear all responsibility for driving. I know that. I know that I need help. I have already called a counselor this morning and am serious about getting treatment. I am not trying to distract from that as the major issue. But shouldn’t he have agreed to do the errand? What is also bothering me is that he texted me a couple of hours later and asked if he could go out and study for an exam this evening. He apparently had already forgotten that I was having thoughts of self-harm and requested to go to an AA meeting tonight. I have many times accused him of taking me for granted and not being emotionally involved in our marriage. This morning felt like a slap in the face. I know that I need to prioritize getting back in recovery. But, once I do, how do I move forward with my marriage?
A: I’m not sure that you will be able to move forward with your marriage. Regardless, I agree that prioritizing your recovery needs to be at the absolute top of your list right now. If it is at all possible—and desirable—for the two of you to make meaningful amends and changes in your marriage, to attempt to squarely address and heal from the past, to build a different kind of future together, the two of you can have more meaningful conversations on the subject when you’re more secure in your sobriety. In the meantime, I think you should assume that your husband will not be a reliable form of emotional and logistical support as you pursue recovery; look for that support from a therapist, from AA, from friends and family for the present as you try to break out of crisis mode.
Q. Guilty lender: A few months ago my friend was in a tough spot financially. She’s had to deal with a lot of medical issues, she has student loans, and she had to take a medical leave from work because she wasn’t given adequate accommodations at work. Her parents died when she was young and left her a bunch of stuff but not cash, and her brother is wealthy but doesn’t help her out. Basically, she and her partner couldn’t make rent. My husband had just gotten a major stock payout from work, so we lent her $5,000. Fast forward six months, and she is back working but still hasn’t been paid by the firm’s unemployment insurance. I didn’t know that, and I reached out to see if she could pay back some because we were a little stressed financially. We’d had to get our dog surgery and had a $10,000 bill, on top of a new mortgage, our own medical bills, etc. I feel terrible for asking for the money back. Since then she’s been paying it off in chunks, but she hasn’t been paid for all that missed work yet. I know their financial situation still isn’t great. Ours is fine. We ended up getting reimbursed by our pet insurance, and my husband makes a comfortable living. Have I done a terrible thing? I don’t know what to do. Do I stop accepting the transfers until I know they’re doing comfortably? Do I push back and say she should wait to pay us back? Or do I just trust that she, 15 years my senior, can take care of herself? I’ve probably answered my own question, but I still feel like garbage.
A: No, you haven’t done anything terrible. You lent money to a friend in need, and while I think you might have planned better at the outset by setting up a repayment plan that seemed reasonable and realistic to both of you, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed now. I I actually do think there’s a way to address your feelings of panic and self-reproach with your friend. Right now you’re swinging back and forth between “Take your time, we’re doing fine” and “I’m so sorry, but I really need this money right now” as your own savings go up or down, and that sort of unpredictable whiplash situation would make anyone feel uncomfortable. Find a time for the two of you to talk, let her know how much you’ve appreciated her flexibility and reliability, stress that you’re no longer in the situation where you needed money quickly, and ask her what she thinks would be a reasonable and non-straining schedule to continue repaying you in regular, manageable chunks over the next six months, two years, whatever. You two can even write something down for you both to refer to later if you like, but I do think it will be important to trust at that point that she’ll tell you if she needs something, rather than make yourself primarily responsible for guessing whether she’s burdened by this repayment plan.
Q. Combining finances: My partner and I are both in our 30s. We both moved from Big City to Smaller State Capital City separately and bought houses because the market was good and neither of us anticipated meeting anyone in the smaller community. Welp, surprise, we met six months later and now want to move in together. My house is bigger, and I work from home, so he’ll be moving into mine as he rents his out. That was a pretty easy decision. This will allow his house to build more equity (he only bought it two years ago), and he will pay all the household bills and more of our living expenses as I pay for the mortgage, so we’ll be contributing equally to the house. The issue is the kitchen. When I moved in a little over a year ago, I knew I wanted to redo the kitchen. It was poorly designed, but I’m a big cook and wanted the opportunity to customize the layout, get a six-burner stovetop, etc., so I purchased specifically to do a reno down the road. I’d love his input and want this to be collaborative because I want this to be a place in our home together. He’s happy to give ideas, but he’s balking at investing at all or signing on to the moderate loan we’ll need to finalize it. He has more equity and savings already, whereas I make more money. My house has a higher value (and will likely accrue more, faster, given the neighborhood), and I have student loans to pay off. I’m really irritated that he won’t invest in the house—and our future—and I thought that what we had worked out was a good middle ground until we fully combined finances. Now this is forcing—and we’re avoiding—a lot of conversations we’re not ready for about our future. I’m wondering if I should slow the move-in, slow the reno, both, or neither. Help?
A: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with slowing the move-in process right now! You two have only been together for six months, and you’ve reached a pretty significant impasse when it comes to sharing expenses and visions for what a shared home might look like. That isn’t necessarily the kiss of death, but I do think it’s a sign you’re trying to put the cart before the horse a bit. Talk to your boyfriend about the possibility of revisiting the moving-in-together conversation until you both feel more prepared to pool resources and share costs. That doesn’t mean you have to completely combine your finances at some point in order to be a “good couple,” but if you two live together you’ll have to combine them at least somewhat. Rather than trying to force an early compromise on your kitchen, I think you should just enjoy being very much still in the new-relationship glow, live separately for another six months or a year, get a new stovetop at your place, and talk about moving in a little later.
Q. Re: Combining finances: They have been together for about a year and a half—they met six months after buying their new homes, which was about two years ago! I’d love to hear another round of advice with this information; a year makes a huge difference in a relationship!
A: Yes, that does make a significant difference! I still think my advice would be to pursue the kitchen renovation and talk about moving in together further down the road. I don’t think moving in together has to be inevitable or necessary after two years, and I think it’s better to have challenging conversations about finances and shared commitments before they’ve moved in together. The context is a little different, but I don’t think moving in together is the greatest possible good for every relationship.
Q. Re: Combining finances: Is the boyfriend’s name on the deed or mortgage? If no, then he shouldn’t be investing a dime in that property. A kitchen remodel is 100 percent windfall for the letter writer if the relationship goes south.
A: That’s a fair concern! I can imagine it might feel more than a little deflating to contemplate moving in with someone just as they’re pursuing a significant home renovation that’s not really a joint project. It doesn’t have to be deflating, of course, but that may be where he’s coming from.
Q. Re: Combining finances: He shouldn’t invest in your house until it is in some way his house. And you should both live at his house during the reno.
A: You can certainly float this as an option to your boyfriend! If he’s up for a sort of preliminary living-together run at his place while you update yours, that might be the best possible compromise.
Q. Update—Re: Bisexual dad: I wrote to you in September asking for advice on how to make things right with my dad, after my brother and I responded horribly to him coming out as bi to us. It’s taken quite a bit of time, but things are finally getting better between us! We took all your advice and ended up writing him a letter telling him how sorry we were and that we’d spent a lot of time examining our responses and found help working through our reactions with some friends we made at PFLAG meetings (we found people with similar issues there). He let us know when he received the letter and that he appreciated it, but said he needed time to properly respond. It did take time, but we saw him again recently and talked at length about the letter and about some very deep insecurities we all have regarding the past with our mom. There were lots of tears all round, but he was very forgiving. He has asked if we want to meet his boyfriend over Christmas, which we’re nervous but excited about. He sounds like a great guy, and we’re touched our dad is letting us into his life again. Thanks so much for the advice.
A: Oh, wow—thank you so much for this update. I’m so happy for all of you, and so glad that your father was able to be honest about continuing to need a little time at first so you were able to move slowly toward a real, meaningful reconciliation rather than rush into papering over the past. I hope continuing to reconnect is a source of great joy and growth for you.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Good luck with all of your respective kitchens.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My 5-year-old really likes touching herself: So this is an awkward question for me to write about. My stepdaughter, who is almost 5, likes to rub herself on her car seat every time we are in the car. How do we get her to stop? According to my husband, she has done this for a while and it most likely started around age 2. He said that he and his ex-wife just ignored it. I remember masturbating as young as 4 and getting caught and being told what I was doing was “bad.” I don’t know how to gracefully tell her that it’s OK to do but not in the car or in front of other people. I don’t want her to be shamed for it (like I was) but I don’t want it to keep happening. And for the record, I don’t think it’s a sign of something deeper like sexual abuse. I wasn’t abused, and still did it. Little kids masturbate and touch themselves! How can I have an age-appropriate conversation with her about it? Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.