Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Morning, chatters! Let’s do what we do best together.
Q. Hate my girlfriend’s friends: I love my girlfriend. She is amazing—funny, smart, kind—but I am tired of her “friends.” She has a tiny group of friends from college who are the most dysfunctional group of women I have ever met. They basically brag about their mental illnesses and wear their “disabilities” like badges. I am sure a few have real issues, but from the stories I have heard, only two have actually seen a medical professional. The rest either self-diagnosed or have some holistic quack they found online. They don’t work, don’t date, and can’t function, except by abusing my girlfriend’s good graces. Making her spend six hours on the phone to soothe their egos, making my girlfriend into their personal chauffeur (three “can’t” drive or take the bus), making my girlfriend pay for their meals, and, finally, making my girlfriend and I move them after they got evicted. In the latter case, that girl sat on her ass, slurping a smoothie while we moved her unpacked junk. Her knees hurt, and she was too “upset” to pack.
Most of them don’t like me because I advocate for my girlfriend to stand up for herself, not dump her life to deal with the wreckage of theirs. Last week, one of them was staying over the weekend because she had a fight with her housemates over her food stealing. She kept putting on the waterworks. I was in the basement and had to kick the door open because it sticks and my hands were full. I came into the living room with this girl in hysterics. My girlfriend was trying to calm her down, but another friend hissed at me that I had “triggered a panic attack” since she had PTSD over her parents’ divorce. They fought and slammed doors. I told them she needed to get a grip and get out of my house since it was Sunday. The pity party was over. It was like dumping water over cats. My girlfriend and I later fought. She hates the way I treat her friends, and I told her I hate the way they treat her. They never say thank you, they never return a favor, and they forget her birthday! She got red and told me I am not helping. I don’t want to help these ladies. They need doctors and a good kick in the pants. My sister was hit by a car and had to have reconstructive surgery as a child—she has never acted like this. What do I do here?
A: You and your girlfriend might have reached an impasse here! She doesn’t seem to agree that all of her friends are taking advantage of her or treating her badly, and if she’s convinced that you’re the one who acted wrongly, plans on seeing these friends as often in the future as she has in the past, and “hates” the way you treat them, I don’t really see a way forward for the two of you here. Maybe if this were just one friend of hers, or if she felt at least a little bit as you do and just wanted help in moving on from some of these friendships, there’d be room for compromise. But I think you should ask yourself whether you can imagine yourself happy in a long-term relationship with someone whose closest friends you despise (and who despise you in turn). If the answer is no, it might be best to part ways with mutual good wishes now and go find someone whose friends you like (or can at least tolerate), rather than waste a lot of time trying to convince your girlfriend to be friends with women who resemble your sister.
Q. My recently separated friends: “Paul,” the husband of my friend “Anna,” moved out about 10 months ago and they are now in the process of getting divorced. He had some kind of breakdown/midlife crisis and didn’t feel ready to be a husband and father—at least that’s what Anna’s friends were told. Last week, a common friend saw him at a work event with his new girlfriend, carrying an infant, and is now convinced that it’s his child. Paul has told Anna that he had started seeing someone after he’d moved out but never mentioned a child. Obviously I’d have to make sure that this was indeed Paul’s baby (how I don’t know yet), but in case it is, do I tell Anna before she runs into him? We all still live in the same big city, so it’s not unlikely this will happen. She’d be devastated. They had been together for 10 years, and she was really hoping to get pregnant when he left her. They are on good terms now, mostly because she is understanding of his “crisis” and because he apparently told her it’s not serious with his new girlfriend. On the one hand, I’d rather not get involved; after all, they’re not in a relationship anymore, and while the timing strikes me as odd, he’s now free to do as he pleases. On the other hand, if I were her, I’d probably rather hear it from a friend than facing him. If in your opinion it’s better to tell, how do I gently break the news to her?
A: You yourself didn’t see Paul with anyone, baby or no baby, and like you I have absolutely no idea how you would go about confirming that a baby you’ve never met or even seen belongs to your friend’s ex-husband. This is definitely none of your business. If he really has had a child, I’m sure someone who actually knows more about the situation will eventually tell her, but either way she’s already divorcing him. It’s not as if this information could lead her to do anything she hasn’t already done. She may or may not be devastated in the future—she may in fact be devastated now and is merely putting on a brave face to avoid feeling humiliated when he talks about his new girlfriend—but you don’t have any real, concrete information to offer her, and at any rate you can’t do anything to prevent possible grief in her future. If you want to do your friend a favor, ask her out for lunch or take her out on a walk and spend some time with her.
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Q. Persistent neighbor: My boyfriend and I live downtown next to a transitional housing facility, a place where previously homeless people can live long-term as they search for a job and, in many cases, receive treatment for addiction or mental illness. It’s a great program, and we love our neighbors in transitional housing. We talk to them a lot, as many are often outside smoking or just hanging out. Many people there absolutely dote on our dog, “Bailey,” which is lovely. One woman, “Doris,” has lived there for a long time. She is very friendly with Bailey, often bringing over treats and giving her long belly rubs. A few months ago, she asked if she could start walking Bailey. Our dog is over 140 pounds and not great with other dogs on a leash, so we politely declined, saying we were more comfortable walking Bailey ourselves. If Doris wanted to go on a walk with Bailey, I said, I’m happy to go out all three of us together. It quickly came to light that Doris was actually trying to start a dog-walking business and wanted us to serve as a reference. Even though we declined, she persists in asking to walk Bailey occasionally.
Now she has texted me (we exchanged numbers some time ago) asking if she could clean our house or do other sundry tasks for $20 every now and again. Our house is small, and we really don’t need the help. Plus, if we did take her up on the offer, I would feel obligated to pay the going rate (around $100), which we really can’t afford. I am sympathetic to Doris’ desire to save up some money. My boyfriend is less sympathetic and says I should just say no and leave it at that, but she is a neighbor and I don’t want her to feel awkward or hurt. Is there any task I could give her, aside from cleaning the house or walking our dog, that might be appropriate for the occasional $20 she is looking for? If not, how do I let her down gently without hurting her feelings or making her feel embarrassed?
A: Right now your problem is that Doris asks you for paid employment doing things around your house that 1) don’t really need doing, 2) she’s not equipped to do, and 3) you can’t really afford to pay her for. Finding “something” for her to do for 20 bucks is not going to solve any of those three problems and may very well make a few of them more difficult to solve, especially because I don’t think she’s really looking for $20 every now and again. You say she wants to start a dog-walking business, which makes me think she’s looking for ways to start supporting herself financially rather than for a little pocket change. If you have trouble saying no to Doris now, I worry you’ll find it impossible once you’ve established a precedent of “I—I guess you could, uh, organize the mud hall for 20 bucks.”
To be clear, I think you can and should continue to be neighborly with Doris, to invite her to join you on your regular walks, to chat with her or light her cigarettes and so on. You can even offer her feedback on how to advertise her dog-walking business or bake her some cookies or knit her a scarf! But you’re not in a position to invest in her financially, you don’t actually have any work that needs doing around the house, she’s not physically prepared to handle your boisterous, 120-plus-pound dog, and $20 from you every other month or so was never going to be the break that finally got her back on her feet. So I think it’s wise for you to find nonfinancial ways to treat her as your neighbor. “Sorry, Bailey’s too big and too unruly for us to risk walking her with anyone else,” “Sorry, we don’t have any chores that need doing around the house,” and “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you with that. Good luck!” are all perfectly gentle ways to say no. You sound very solicitous and thoughtful. I don’t think you’re at risk of saying something dismissive or embarrassing.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a mistake if you do periodically find some low-stakes task for her to do for a 20! It would not be the worst thing in the world by a long shot; you could still tell her no in the future if you didn’t have any more chores for her; and as long as you can spare the cash, there’s no harm done. But I don’t think you should invent a task if you don’t actually need anything from her.
Q. My bridesmaid’s daughter: I recently got engaged, and one of my bridesmaids is my oldest friend who now lives in a different state. Her daughter passed away this year, and my attending the funeral caused some financial struggles that I disclosed to my close friends here in town (obviously I would never mention this to my friend, and I’m glad I was able to be there for her). Now that we’re engaged and she’s going to be here with so many people who don’t know her, I’m terrified that someone’s going to ask her if she has kids or, worse, mention the funeral not knowing that she’s the friend in question. Should I give the other bridesmaids a heads-up? I also know it’s probably been a while since she’s been around people who don’t know about the death, so it might be nice for her to be around girls who just treat her like a person, rather than with immediate pity or awkwardness. She’s incredibly dear to me, and I’m so worried about fucking this up. What should I do?
A: I hope none of your guests mentions a funeral you attended a year ago—it would be a very odd, tonally inappropriate subject to introduce at a wedding. If you’re really concerned, you can certainly say to the handful of close friends you told about your financial struggles that you’d rather they not say anything about it during your wedding. (I imagine they will quickly and easily say, “Of course not,” and it will be but the work of a moment.) But when it comes to possibly preemptively avoiding questions like “So, do you have any kids?” I think you should talk to your friend first. Ask her if she’d like you to run any interference on her behalf or if she’d rather handle any questions about kids if they arise. As long as you make it clear that you’re happy to do whatever she prefers, to either keep mum about her loss or to let the rest of your bridal party know what happened and what questions to avoid, I think she’ll be glad you asked. And congratulations! I hope your wedding day is delightful.
Q. Gender reveal party: About two years ago, two gay men, who have been close friends of mine for over 20 years, told me they were trying to have a child with a surrogate mother (who’s the partner of a lesbian friend of mine). Both of my male friends are very wealthy (the lesbian couple is doing OK too). I don’t know what the financial arrangement was for this pregnancy. They announced the pregnancy around the three-month stage, and a few of us organized a baby shower at my house, which the surrogate mother (and her partner) attended. Everyone got them gifts, and we all had a lovely time.
Yesterday, about four weeks after the baby shower, I received an invitation to a “gender reveal party” at their home in two weeks’ time. The email said: “As you know, we are soon going to be fathers to a lovely baby through a surrogate pregnancy. Join us on [Date] with our wonderful mother where the gender of the baby will be revealed for celebration. Instead of gifts, we request cash or gift cards from [Company name] which will help the surrogate mother of our child to cover the costs of the pregnancy, birth, and her post-birth care/needs.” I am appalled and confused. It seems like grasping for money to me. I have little experience with friends who have children. When other friends of mine have had kids, I’ve attended (or sent a gift to) a baby shower along with cards and small gifts on births (and for my nieces and nephews, my parents and I set up trust funds to help them in their future). Is this “gender reveal” thing normal? It seems like overreaching to me.
A: The history of the “gender reveal” party is pretty short; the earliest one was in 2008. I am generally not a fan, but I have to say I’ve never heard of anyone throwing a gender reveal party to raise money to pay a surrogate, much less after the expectant couple has already received gifts at a baby shower. I certainly hope this does not become the new normal! Feel free to RSVP “not attending”—it’s truly ridiculous.
Q. The value of sleep: My boyfriend and I live together, and when we socialize with our friends or family, we repeatedly encounter the same problem: He typically wants to stay out at night much later than I do. This is fine with me—I’m happy to head home on my own when I get tired or have things to take care of and have him come home a couple of hours later. But he insists that us leaving separately is “weird” and that it looks bad to other people. I admit it may come across as odd since we live together, and at the very least we’re wasting money on separate car-share rides. But I don’t think anybody’s dwelling over it or thinking our relationship’s in trouble because of it. I think he’s overthinking it. Who is right? It seems ridiculous for me to stay at a social function for significantly longer than I have the energy for, just to keep up appearances! Here I thought I was the “chill girlfriend” for not caring how late he stays out.
A: I’d ask your boyfriend to tell you a little bit more about what he thinks is “weird” about leaving at separate times on the occasional night out—in what way does it look bad? Have people said this to him or responded to your departure in a way that made him feel put on the spot? Has anything actually happened around this, or is it simply a fear that he has? What strategies might be available to him in those moments, either in terms of having a frank discussion with close friends about the nature of one’s relationship or in cultivating acceptance that we cannot control what others think of us at all times? What exactly is the “badness” he’s worried others will think? Is he trying to use the (hypothetical) reactions of others as cover for not saying what he wants from you? There’s lots of room to ask questions and learn from each other here without necessarily committing to giving in to his request; you two can talk about what strikes you as a reasonable time commitment for the average night out, how you might signal when you’re ready to go home, and how you might prioritize spending time with friends and family.
I’m ultimately on your side here. I think going home after a night out when you’re tired is a perfectly normal, reasonable thing to do. He is of course free to come home with you, if he’s especially concerned about what people might think if you two have different bedtimes! Achieving maximum chillness should not be your goal in this situation. You can give him plenty of room to discuss his desires and fears and anxieties and preferences without letting said fears dictate your actions. Get your sleep!
Q. Destigmatize me, captain: I currently have my first cold sore. My boyfriend of three years gets them 4–5 times a year. We were careful about not sharing utensils or kissing during the first few outbreaks he had, but after about a year I adopted a more laissez-faire attitude. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it especially since it was possible I was exposed as a kid and didn’t even know. Now that I have one, I’m freaking out a bit. (Have I accidentally exposed anyone? Should I have a separate sponge at work? Is everyone staring at me? Did I spread it to my eyes? Am I lesser/damaged now?)
I don’t think it’s my boyfriend’s fault, and I’ve told him as much, but he’s interpreting my anxiety over my first outbreak as me blaming him, and then he falls into a downward guilt spiral. I’m 26 and currently uninsured, recently aged off my mom’s plan, so visiting my primary care physician for advice is off the table. I know HSV is super common and very manageable, but I’m still adjusting. Do you have any tips on how to work through the stigma and get my boyfriend to quit blaming himself?
A: First things first: If you can’t visit your PCP, you can use this locator to find the nearest free clinic. Schedule an appointment or set aside a block of time to walk in; if you’re not near a free clinic, look for the nearest Planned Parenthood, which offers financial assistance for uninsured patients and will be able to offer you a low- or no-cost consultation for an STI screening and a conversation about prevention and treatment. You’re panicking right now, which is understandable, but getting practical, noncatastrophic medical advice about how to deal with your cold sore will help to combat the worst-case scenarios that are currently running through your mind. In the meantime, give yourself permission to ride this particular freakout. You’re aware that some of these anxious thoughts are unrealistic and that you actually will be able to treat and manage cold sores/possible HSV, so don’t beat yourself up for freaking out. Berating oneself for freaking out usually doesn’t do much in terms of ending the freakout. If anything, it makes things worse. Give yourself a little time to dwell on the things you’re most afraid of. It might even help to journal through some of those worst-case scenarios, how you might deal with them, and how you could address the attendant feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. It may seem counterintuitive (Why would I spend time concretizing my worst fears when I’m trying to get them out of my mind?), but facing those thoughts squarely and head-on can make you feel more prepared to deal with reality and less beset by shadowy, vague torments. Then go talk to a doctor about your treatment options.
Q. How can I find a loving partnership as a contented asexual? I am a 26-year-old woman, and I have been on a handful of dates. I have had one relationship that began to use the words boyfriend and girlfriend but soon after fizzled out. When I was in college, I learned about asexuality and was delighted to find that it applied to me. I had an identity; there was a whole group of people who felt the same way that I did. I’m not interested in sexual activity, I’m rather repulsed by it. This may be a result of a traumatic childhood. But I think I may be interested in a romantic relationship. I know my mother has a growing concern that I’ll be alone.
I’ve started looking into dating sites, particularly those designed as safe, small, casual mingle events. I just have concerns. Should I become interested in someone, how do I come out of the closet without scaring them off? I’ve loved watching asexuality grow into the public consciousness, but that doesn’t mean everyone would be down with someone dating who is barely tolerant of holding hands or “Hey, I like to romantic stylez, but I ain’t down for getting funky. Ever.”
A: I would start by recommending you come up with a description of what you’re looking for in a date or a partner beyond “Hey, I like to romantic stylez, but I ain’t down for getting funky,” if only because it feels like you’re trying to make a joke out of something you actually feel quite strongly about and consider important and meaningful. If you’re interested in meeting up with large groups of people, you might try searching Meetup for asexual groups in your area. When it comes to dating sites, look for those that are geared toward asexual people or explicitly asexual-friendly, and find a succinct, low-key way to disclose in your profile so you don’t have to waste a lot of time explaining yourself on a first date to someone who’s not looking for the same things you are. I want you to be able to go out with someone who thinks your asexuality is an asset, not something to be overcome.
Also, good luck with finding ways to explain and justify the things that bring you joy to your mother! That is a lifelong challenge for many of my readers, and I hope yours is able to try to understand the choices you make.
Q. Re: My bridesmaid’s daughter: Ask your friend if she wants you to give the heads-up. After two years, I still often run into people who either don’t know my son died or never knew I had him and ask about kids. It’s always painful, but I respond differently in different situations depending on how fragile I feel and how I know the person. After a year of handling this grief, your friend probably has a similar sense of whether she wants to talk about it and how. She may find it empowering or may want to dodge, but you can’t make that decision for her.
A: I think that’s the key here—it’s so variable that I just don’t think it’s possible for the letter writer to accurately guess how their friend will want to handle talking about her daughter’s death without asking. Asking is the right move.
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Q. I regret adopting my baby: I was told as a teenager that I could never carry a baby to term, so my husband and I immediately started the process of adoption as soon as we married. After many years of waiting, we adopted a beautiful little 5-month-old. I love her and would die for her if need be, but I find myself unexpectedly hating parenthood three months on. My daughter, bless her, wakes up every two to three hours every day. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has helped her to sleep. I terribly miss my old life and feel anxious about going out in case she gets unsettled (which she often does). My husband and I have no quality time together and we’ve bickered a lot because I am always snappy and stressed out. I find myself resentful of her sometimes and then feeling horribly guilty for feeling resentful. Is there any advice you have for me, mother to mother? Read what Prudie had to say.