Prudie is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat, which was guest-helmed by Nicole Cliffe.
Q. Not the bad guy: One of the owners in my apartment building, “E,” has rented out her storage unit in the attic to “X.” This is against the rules of our homeowners association and E did not ask permission. We only heard after X had moved in, so the HOA decided to give X six months to find alternative housing because we didn’t want to leave her homeless. X has tried to convince us to let her stay several times. We have told her: “It’s nothing personal. We don’t want anybody living in the attic. We will not change our minds, and we do not want to discuss this any further.” She wrote a letter in which she begged us to let her stay, and she delivered a copy personally to us and to the tenants of the two other apartments. In the letter, we are painted as the bad guys who are selfishly denying her living space in a very expensive city, booting her from the first place that felt like home to her. All the other owners rent out their apartments, so I assume the tenants don’t know the situation. They have moved in recently, and we are hosting a potluck dinner in two weeks so we can get to know each other. I heard X chatting in the hallway with one of them and they seemed to be on very friendly terms. One of the tenants asked me why I haven’t invited X and what I have against her. The last time I spoke with X about this issue I explained that one of the reasons that we don’t want this space rented out permanently is that it’s right above our toddlers’ bedroom. Ever since she learned this, she’s started playing loud music after midnight, twice in a week’s time. This never happened once before. Please, do you have any idea what I can do? Do I have to invite her to the potluck dinner? I have no leverage with X because we have promised her she can stay six months (four months to go). E is very uncooperative because she wants the additional income and works abroad, so she will be no help if X refuses to move out or continues the nightly musical disturbances.
A: There’s a long solution, which is trying to make nice with X and then white-knuckling it for four months, and then there’s a much faster solution, which is: I would be completely shocked if said “storage unit” were up to fire codes or legal for actual humans to live in, and calling the fire inspector to grass on X’s place should do the trick.
This may sound like a shitty thing to do, but many, many people have died in situations where slumlords have tacked an extra two bedrooms into a house or apartment. It creates literal mazes for firefighters to negotiate, leads to people using space heaters and hot plates in unsafe ways because they don’t have kitchen facilities, and ensures you do not have the number of mandated exits. This is likely why your HOA banned people from living in the storage unit in the first place.
There is a desperate need for affordable housing, but a storage unit in an attic ain’t it. I would tell E to move X into her own apartment while she’s out of town, or else you’re calling the city.
Q. Never ask a woman her age: I went straight from undergrad to law school, so I finished my degree quite young (but not shockingly so—I didn’t skip any grades). I’ve been a licensed, practicing attorney for a year now, but I definitely look like I’m in my 20s, which I am. I make sure to dress appropriately and conservatively, wear makeup, and keep my hair short in an effort to look the part, but I still get asked a very blunt question with some frequency: “How old are you?” Isn’t it still rude to ask someone their age? This usually comes from clients, so I don’t want to be rude back, but how can I politely give a nonanswer to this extremely direct question?
A: I am reminded of Elizabeth Bennet’s tussle with Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?”
“With three younger sisters grown up,” replied Elizabeth, smiling, “your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.”
Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.
“You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age.”
“I am not one-and-twenty.”
I recommend a breezy “old enough to rent a car without a surcharge, young enough to not have strong memories of the Crimean War” and then changing the subject. It’s a rude question! That’s a very mild response, especially when delivered, as I hope, with a smile.
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Q. It’s not abuse—it’s just autism: I’m a 40-year-old woman who was just recently diagnosed as autistic, thanks to a mental health care system that routinely thinks women should have the same indicators as men, on whom diagnostic criteria were developed. I’m thrilled to get this diagnosis as it explains so much about me. One of the many things it explains is why I have “meltdowns” when I get extremely overwhelmed (I basically scream and say things that I don’t really mean). I used to think I was an awful person for doing this and that these were basically temper tantrums that I needed to grow out of, but now I recognize it as something I can’t necessarily control.
The problem is, my girlfriend is not as relieved as I am about this revelation about my meltdowns. She’s not used to yelling (her previous partners didn’t, her parents didn’t, and she doesn’t yell, either) and she has all but suggested that my behavior is abusive! We’ve been together for about a year now, and I’m worried she’ll call it quits just because of this. My meltdowns, thankfully, never cause me to physically act out. How do I explain to her that my meltdowns are just something she needs to get used to?
A: Well, you both have some work to do here. She doesn’t have to “just get used” to being yelled at and being verbally abused. She has been experiencing abusive behavior from you for a long time, and the fact that you now have a diagnosis that sheds light on this behavior is unlikely to result in an immediate flip to “Oh, this is fine—this is autism.”
I think it would go a long way for you to say that you recognize that it’s unacceptable to yell horrible things at her, regardless of the reason, and that now that you have a diagnosis you want to work on a plan for figuring out what triggers or sensory overloads result in your meltdowns, with an eye to minimizing them and also having some warning. The most important thing, I think, is to make it clear that if you are physically safe, she does not have to remain with you during a meltdown involving you yelling horrible things at her. She can leave the room, go to another room, turn on the television, read a book. Your job is not to follow her, continuing to yell.
Because these meltdowns have seemed completely directed at her, the “oh, it’s actually me” revelation is a good time to emphasize it’s not about her by respecting her autonomy to walk out of the room.
If you continue to yell horrible, untrue things at her and follow her, you’re engaging in more than a “meltdown.”
I am very glad you have gotten this diagnosis. You are very correct that girls and women are far more likely to receive late diagnosis, and I hope that, while this is a time of relief for you and that this gives you a sense of not always being the “odd one out,” you do not lose sight of the fact that your partner has the right to feel harmed by by your behavior and that if you are not able to come to the sort of agreements I mentioned earlier, it may be a good choice for her to end the relationship. Please (if possible) go to counseling first, with someone who has worked with autistic clients.
I wish you both the best.
Q. Potentially volatile wife: Years ago, my girlfriend held me at gunpoint for hours. I talked her down and then got her professional help, and things got better. We’re now married with two children. We agreed long ago that there would be absolutely no weapons in our home, for obvious reasons. Recently I found a weapon—not a firearm—hidden in her drawer. I’m sure my wife is only thinking about personal protection, but it makes me nervous. I thought of getting rid of this weapon surreptitiously, but I don’t know whether it’s the only one. Should I confront my wife about this?
A: WHAT. I desperately want to thrust you into a time machine and keep you from marrying a woman who would hold you at gunpoint “for hours” but here we are. I applaud you for seeking help for her. You need to have a conversation about this outside your home. (I really am not joking. I do not want her feeling backed into a corner by your words and suddenly producing a switchblade from the couch cushions.)
What advice would you give a female friend in your position who had previously been held at gunpoint by her now-husband? I would be deeply concerned for the safety of her and her children, and I find myself equally concerned for you and yours.
If you have a trusted care provider from your earlier dive into professional help, ask her to go see this person together. No weapons in the home is the most reasonable possible boundary to have, and my first question would be why she felt the need to do this, when she obtained it, and what her thought process was.
Don’t underreact to this, please.
Q. Don’t want personalized wedding gifts that erase me! I’m getting married in about two years, and I’m not taking my fiancé’s last name. I feel pretty strongly about this (I was a gender studies major), and he has no feelings on the matter. The only problem is that we saw his brother and his brother’s wife get several unsolicited wedding gifts from my fiancé’s family friends with “The [Robinsons]” on them—think cutting boards, wall signs, etc. We really don’t want any gifts like this, so we’re trying to figure out how to tell people to not buy us gifts assuming that I’m taking his last name. Should we put something about me not taking his last name so please no “Robinson” gifts on the registry page of our wedding website? Kindly ask his parents to let their friends know? Let it go?
A: This is always a tricky one, because you don’t want to be like “When you’re writing out those sweet, sweet wedding checks, make sure you get our names right,” but you also don’t want to drown in a sea of Robinson-branded tchotchkes.
Don’t put it in writing. People have very, very strong opinions about what it’s OK to put on a wedding invitation or registry page. (Did you know that writing “no gifts” on a wedding invite beckons the Götterdämmerung? True story). This is absolutely an “appoint a trusted member of the Robinson family to spread the word to the invite list” situation. Tell them to keep it light and informative.
When you invariably get a waffle iron that stamps THE ROBINSONS onto your breakfast, I hope you keep it and laugh, because it’s very, very hard to return personalized gifts.
Congratulations on your impending nuptials!
Q. My friend’s texting her boyfriend sexual fantasies about me: For a few months last year, I would have threesomes with my friend “Diane” and her boyfriend, “George,” whenever the latter was in town. It was a pretty casual arrangement. Eventually, however, I broke it off—the sex was mediocre, but more importantly I was tired of feeling like I was only there to fulfill their threesome fantasy, though obviously I wasn’t that blunt about it to them. They were disappointed but understanding. We’re still platonic friends; Diane and I are part of a larger friend group and see each other often, and I’ll chat with George sometimes when he comes into town. It’s been about a year since then, and I (perhaps naïvely) assumed Diane and George were over the whole threesome thing. However, last week, after going out to eat with Diane and the rest of our friend group, I happened to glance over Diane’s shoulder and see her typing a detailed sexual fantasy to George—about me. On one hand, I get it—hey, I’ve had sexual fantasies about my friends too. On the other, wow I did not predict how uncomfortable I’d feel to realize that this restored “platonic” friendship apparently still includes the two of them mutually fantasizing over me. Do I say something to Diane and risk coming off as a douche who looks over people’s shoulders as they text (I swear it’s not a typical habit of mine), or do I stay quiet and live with the knowledge that Diane’s mentally undressing me every time we hang out?
A: Well, you can’t have a threesome without breaking some future fantasy material eggs.
It is unfortunate you saw the text. It is downright inappropriate for Diane to be typing it out over dinner together—don’t bring innocent food into this! The fantasies are fine.
They are going to continue to have these fantasies. I do not think you have ever truly had a platonic friendship, not on their end, and I cannot imagine any conversation you could have with Diane that will change that. I would likely slowly fade out of the friendship, as it would make me uncomfortable. If you think you can just forget this and go back to seeing them your usual amount, great. But definitely don’t bring it up either way.
Q. Am I falling in love with Jesus or just this one guy? Growing up, my answer to the question of whether I was religious was “one side of my family (including me) is queer and the other side is culturally Muslim, so no.” I have been mostly content with believing in a higher power privately. But then I met “Michael.” Michael shares my leftist politics and is kind, open, and devoutly Catholic. I have always fallen for people quickly, so I wasn’t surprised when I started feeling my heart swell in that familiar way soon after we started dating. What I was surprised by was the sense of resonance and grace that washes over me when we talk about his beliefs. I don’t want to get baptized anytime soon, but I also don’t want to keep pretending that my interests in Michael’s beliefs are purely academic or rooted solely in the desire to get to know him better. How do I go about explaining where my head is at and asking for resources to learn more without inextricably linking these potential faith and relationship journeys? This has never happened with people of other faiths whom I’ve fallen for, by the way.
A: This is very sweet. You’re dating someone, they share your politics and are good to you, and instead of being weirded out by their religion, you find yourself drawn to it. I’m glad you mentioned this has never happened to you before with partners of other faiths, because that makes this sound a lot less like a habit of falling into the interests of people you are infatuated with.
If you want to test it a little, try exploring your thoughts about faith on your own a bit more. Leftist Catholicism has a pretty robust history; pick up some Dorothy Day and ask for some book recommendations and see if going to Mass without him packs the same emotional and spiritual punch.
Q. Re: Never ask a woman her age: I am also a young female attorney, and in my experience the best response is “I’ve been practicing for X years” or “I graduated from [school name] in 2013.” It’s polite enough but still brings it back to my professional experience and makes it clear that I don’t plan on answering the actual question.
A: I like this! Doesn’t have a lot of Pride and Prejudice in it, of course, but would probably work quite neatly.
Nicole Cliffe: This has been delightful! Thank you so much for having me again!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg will return next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. How do I handle an alcoholic in-law around my kids during the holidays? My father-in-law’s wife is an alcoholic. Over the years, she’s consistently caused issues at major family functions. She recently got into a drunken physical altercation with my father-in-law and drove home drunk from an afternoon event. She expresses jealousy about his relationship with his kids and grandkids. She’s generally uncaring and mean.
I don’t want her around my toddler and infant, and have told her that she isn’t welcome to develop a relationship with them. Naturally, that’s driven a wedge between my father-in-law and his grandkids, so I’m not sure I’ve made the right choice. My father-in-law is very much codependent, so I can’t count on him to be a buffer. Though they’re often estranged, they’re together at the moment. With the holidays coming up, we will be visiting but not staying with them, and I don’t know how to handle the situation. Do I stick to my guns? Not say anything at all but don’t push the relationship? Apologize? I feel like I’m both trying to protect my children and being insensitive about her serious problem. Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
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