Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hello, everyone! Let’s sort out some problems.
Q. Offensive game: My boyfriend is usually great. He is a feminist, and everything seemed to be perfect. But when I met his family, the other shoe dropped. When he and his brother are together, they reenact this stupid game from their childhood. I would probably just overlook this as nostalgia if not for the offensive nature of the game. The game consists of his brother posing as a teacher named “Mrs. Reape” and my boyfriend posing as her student who constantly calls her “Mrs. Rape.” That is the whole infantile joke. I find this incredibly stupid, immature, and offensive. Whenever my boyfriend and his brother are together, they inevitably laugh up a storm at the expense of rape victims. I’m ready to give him an ultimatum: either me or Mrs. Reape. Am I being unreasonable?
A: Asking your partner not to make jokes about rape is a reasonable request. This is a good ultimatum, and one you have every right to deliver. There’s a reason he and his brother don’t revisit any of the other jokes or memories from their childhood (of which there are presumably many). They go back to the rape joke for a reason: They want to make jokes at the expense of rape victims and they want to do it in front of you, over and over and over again. You have every reason to decline to be an audience member for this show.
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Q. Prioritizing his friends: I have been with my boyfriend for just over one year, and we have enjoyed a nice relationship. We’ve had some ups and downs, but nothing major. However, given recent circumstances with the pandemic, I am reconsidering whether I want to stay with my boyfriend. On the weekend, before we started self-isolating, we got into a fight because I wanted him to take the pandemic more seriously. After that weekend, we decided to self-isolate separately since we both had different ideologies on how to practice social distancing. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve continued to have arguments about social distancing, and in one fight we even questioned if we should stay together, but then decided to work through it.
However, he continues to have friends visit him during this time, even though we are under a shelter-in-place. He has said I can visit too, but I don’t feel comfortable. I do miss my boyfriend and want to spend time with him. I asked him if he wanted to visit me, granted that he would have to practice social distancing for seven days before coming over. Initially he agreed, but when I told him that includes not allowing friends to visit him, he declined my invitation. According to him, spending time with his friends is his priority. I no longer feel like a priority to him, and I don’t think I want to prioritize a relationship with someone who is unwilling to limit their contact with others. I have read online that many people are feeling stressed and now is not the time to make decisions based on stress or emotions, but I’m not sure I can continue video chatting and talking on the phone with someone who does not prioritize our relationship or proper social distancing. Am I being rash if I let coronavirus come between us and end the relationship?
A: It’s a good idea to give yourself a little time to reflect and reconsider big decisions during times of stress, but I don’t think that means you have to wait until you’re suddenly stress-free in order to break up with someone you’re no longer into. You say things have been “nice” with “some ups and downs,” that you’ve been fighting because you have significantly different values about how to handle issues of public health, and that he’s told you spending time with his friends is his biggest priority. Those sound like great reasons to break up.
Q. When the annoying neighbor is you: I just got an anonymous, passive-aggressive note from what I’m assuming is my downstairs neighbor about how “thin the walls, ceiling, and floor” are in my building. Prudie, I couldn’t be a more silent tenant. I rarely have people over—not at all recently, given the current situation. I keep my music and television at a quiet volume. I have been FaceTiming my friends and family more often lately because of the obvious. But even then, I talk in a normal, indoor voice. I hate feeling like I have to tiptoe around my own apartment, especially since I’m currently trapped in it and feeling a lot of anxiety over that. I feel like I’m just trying to survive right now, and apparently you can also be the villain by staying home.
What should I do about this? I could let my landlord know about the note as an FYI in case he gets a complaint, but I’ve only been in this apartment for two months and I don’t want to stir up trouble before I need to. I’ve been trying to be sympathetic that we’re all stuck at home in this crazy situation, and to be more aware of how much noise I make, but this feels excessive. My friends and former roommates agree that I’m a quiet person and this person’s problem is clearly with the building, not me. What do you advise?
A: You don’t have to tiptoe around your apartment. If you want to let your landlord know about the note as a way of heading off future irritation, you certainly can (stressing, of course, that you don’t have guests, maintain reasonable quiet hours, and aren’t blaring music at 2 a.m. so your landlord’s aware you’re not doing anything odd). But there’s a limit to how much you can make up for the fact that you live in a thin-walled building with multiple residents. It’s not reasonable to ask someone to whisper in their own home or only watch TV with headphones on, so please don’t hold yourself to that standard. It’s difficult to respond to an anonymous note, especially since yours referenced not just floors and ceilings but also the walls—it could have been any one of a number of people. My best advice is to keep doing what you’re doing and don’t blame yourself for someone else’s unreasonable, princess and the pea–like expectations.
Q: When do I tell my date I’m a widower? I’m in my early 30s and recently lost my wife, “Jess.” I am doing as well as I can be, and I want to begin to meet new people and date again sometime in the near future. Jess and I had two years of knowing we didn’t have long together, so we made time to tell each other what we felt, and she made it clear she wanted me to find someone special and to not to live inside my grief. My issue, then: As and when I step back into the world as a single man, how and when do I tell prospective dates I’m a widower? Are white lies OK early on? I’m aware that “Oh, my ex died of cancer, actually!” is not exactly first date material, but in my head, the happy-go-lucky and flirtatious dance we go through when meeting new people will present something altogether misleading, perhaps dishonest, even. Jess was a titan in my life and always will be. Aside from the amazing mark she left on me as a person, my house is the one we bought together, I post about her regularly on social media; our dog’s collar still has both our names on it. Hiding these things from anyone who may care to look, even just logistically (like hiding pinned tweets about fundraising for her hospice, or saying, “Uh, my house is a bit far, let’s meet at the cafe!”) feels a bit … wrong? How far should things go before I sit someone down for “the talk”? Or should I just be brave and put it in my dating profiles (oh, God, I’ve not been single in the era of dating apps!) and accept it’ll probably put off a lot of people who may have concerns—real or imagined—about dating someone who will always love someone else?
A: There’s nothing wrong about not wanting to meet at your own home for a first date (not that you’re going to be able to meet up in a café with anyone in the immediate future, but hopefully this can prove helpful later on). I think you’re being unnecessarily hard on yourself! Most people prefer to meet at a casual, low-stakes public place on a first date partly for issues of safety (you’re meeting a near-stranger) and partly because you don’t yet know if you have any in-person chemistry and want to make the possibility of leaving early a little easier. The only reason I would advise against “little white lies” is because I think they’d make things difficult for you later on. That doesn’t mean I think you have to mention the fact that you’re a widower on a first date! But something like “I’ve been in long-term relationships before” is easier to clarify later than “I’ve never been married,” for example.
Censoring your own social media habits also strikes me as making more trouble for yourself than necessary. But declining to connect on social media with someone you’ve only met once or twice is perfectly reasonable. There’s always an argument to be made for leading with information you want to screen potential dates for, but I think it’s also wise to protect yourself emotionally and not set up potentially taxing conversations on every second date. If you think you have real potential with someone after you’ve been out a few times, rather than sit them down for “the talk” right away, why not mention briefly that you’re a widower and leave it at that? You can always discuss it in greater detail later. But simply acknowledging the fact that your wife died doesn’t mean you then have to share everything on the spot.
Q. Putting a pandemic houseguest to work: My husband’s little sister lost her job and was worried about how to afford living in her apartment during the pandemic, so we invited her to come stay with us rent-free for the duration. So far it’s been working out well—she’s a lovely young woman and is pitching in around the house and giving us space. We paid our cleaner for three months and said not to come, but my problem is that I really hate housework and I’m just not very good at it. (My husband doesn’t really care about housework and doesn’t notice when things get messy.) My husband and I are both working from home, so while we have more time, we don’t have so much spare time that we’re desperate for some cleaning jobs to break up the day. My question is, can I offer to pay my sister-in-law to clean the house? Is it sexist to put that on her? (My husband and I are both men.) I don’t want to make her feel like she has to do this to “earn” her place here, but it would make a huge difference if she said yes!
A: It’s always difficult to offer to pay someone to “voluntarily” do chores around the house when that person is already a dependent of yours. That doesn’t mean you’re in danger of treating her like Cinderella, just that I think you’ll have to accept that if you were to offer to pay her to clean the house, she would probably feel like she had to do it to earn her place no matter how kindly you phrased it. It’s not a question of phrasing but of reality—the reality is that she lives with you, rent-free, without the protection of a lease, because you made her a verbal offer.
It might help to reframe some of this. There’s nothing unique about hating housework. Most people dislike housework to a certain extent. It’s work! So you don’t need to frame yourself as someone who “hates” it, because then by inference you might be inclined to think of other people who do it more readily as people who are “naturally disposed” to like housework. At the same time, your sister-in-law is living with you and is currently part of the house, and therefore makes some of the mess. She’s already pitching in around the house, so you know she’s eager to be useful whenever possible. I think you can make this offer to her, but first I’d suggest having a talk with your husband about how you two are going to handle apportioning these tasks now that you’re all staying at home. Trying to get out of keeping a house livable by claiming “not to notice” mess is a dodge and an evasion, and it’s not something you have to accept at face value. All three of you will need to contribute something toward house upkeep, even if that something is only being responsible for your own dishes, towels, and dirty laundry. If you and your husband can agree on certain tasks that you’ll both take care of on your own as well as a few general tasks (taking out the trash, say, or running a vacuum once a month—you don’t have to try to win any housekeeping awards, just keep things from falling into total chaos) you can split, then you can suggest the possibility of paid chores to his sister.
Q. My boyfriend wasn’t supportive: My grandfather died very suddenly. I live 1,200 miles from my nearest family, and at the time I was in total self-isolation after exposure to COVID-19. I took this death a lot harder than I had expected, but when I reached out to my boyfriend of over a year, he pushed me off the phone after 20 minutes because he needed to get back to work. Later that evening, he didn’t check in on me and couldn’t talk because he was too busy watching TV with roommates. This was obviously incredibly hurtful, which I told him, and he apologized, but I’m having a hard time forgiving him. He’s a generally very kind and caring person, but this is not the first time I’ve been disappointed by his lack of emotional support in situations where the need for it is pretty obvious, nor is it the first time that I’ve told him as much. Is there a way to move forward in our relationship when my partner has betrayed my trust and failed to support me in a time of need?
A: I think there’s a number of ways to move forward in such a situation, but all of those scenarios involve a partner who’s demonstrated a real interest in acting differently in the future, with specific and concrete ideas about how they’re going to change. The fact that your partner has apologized is nice, but has he put any independent thought into investigating why he’s made a habit of ignoring you in times of crisis, and what he needs to do in order to change that habit? If he’s unable to give that question real thought, and if his answer to why he ignored you to watch TV that night is “Gee, I dunno,” you have real reason to believe the same thing is likely to happen again in the future.
Q. Roommate’s showers are driving me crazy: My roommate takes showers that are way too long. Before this pandemic I didn’t realize the extent of it, as I would wake up early and go to the gym before work. Now that I’m home all the time I’m seeing a major issue. First off, he showers every day. I know people do that, but he takes 35-minute or longer showers every single day. If it were a relatively quick 15 minutes that would be one thing, but 30-plus minutes is too much. He also works in a hospital, so he’s taken to showering in the morning AND when he gets home. Those showers are also 30-plus minutes. I can’t take it anymore. I’ve spoken with my other roommates about it and we agree it’s an issue, but we’re apprehensive of how to start discussing it. The only thing holding me back is that I know if I bring it up he’ll bring up something I do wrong, and it’ll just devolve into a blame fest instead of something productive. How do I have this conversation without a fight breaking out?
A: I suppose one way you can cut off possible distractions—if these really are things you do wrong—is to simply say: “Yes, you’re right. I often forget to take out the trash when it’s full. I’ll start working on that.” Nothing takes the wind out of someone else’s sails like agreeing with them. That said, if your roommate is working in a hospital right now, I think showering twice a day is pretty reasonable, so I wouldn’t try to negotiate with him on that front. But asking him to move from 30-minute showers to 15-minute ones is perfectly reasonable. You can acknowledge that you know he’s likely under a lot of stress, but then just make your request. If you think it will help to approach him as a group, do it; if you think he’s likelier to get defensive if everyone’s involved, appoint one of you as the shower deputy. Or if you want to leave room to discuss a number of household issues that everyone has a stake in or might have complaints to make, you can schedule a house meeting. If he gets defensive, stay calm, take a pause if you need to, prepare to say things like “I’ll give that some thought” or “I hear you, let’s talk about that after we’ve found a compromise on showering times,” and prepare to fight as cleanly and as respectfully as you can. But if you all end up fighting, I don’t think you should consider that the worst possible outcome or something to be avoided at all costs. Fights happen between roommates in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
Q. Asking partner to use anti-virals: I have a partner whom I’ve been seeing for a few months. She told me early on that she has HSV-2 (genital herpes) so we’ve been using protection. But the more I read about it, the more I realize there’s still a decent risk of transmission even when using a condom and avoiding sex during obvious outbreaks. I’ve also read that daily anti-viral medicine can reduce the risk of transmission to an uninfected partner significantly. It’s a conversation I dread but think about often. Is it fair to ask someone else to get on a daily anti-viral drug regimen?
A: Provided that you do so politely and respectfully, and take her own considerations and concerns into account, absolutely. I think this dread may be a bit one-sided, since your partner has been pretty upfront and (apparently) relaxed about disclosing her diagnosis and practicing safer sex. I don’t think she’s suddenly going to become flustered and self-conscious if you bring up herpes suppression. My only advice would be to talk about this frankly and matter-of-factly rather than with a lot of hemming and hawing. Tell her your concern, share what you’ve learned with her, and ask her if she’d be interested in talking to a doctor together. Wanting to reduce the odds of transmission doesn’t have to mean stigmatizing your partner.
Q. Re: When the annoying neighbor is you: Is the letter writer using earbuds while FaceTiming? If not, that is likely the source of noise. I’ve had neighbors Skype endlessly, and the noise from speakers travels more than people realize.
A: That does seem like a reasonable step the letter writer could possibly take, if they haven’t done so already.
Q. Re: When the annoying neighbor is you: I live in an apartment with very thin walls, floors, and ceilings. So thin that I can hear my upstairs neighbor fart. I’ve come to take it as something that’s a (very) funny quirk about living in an apartment building. I know my neighbors can hear every little noise I make and it’s something I think we’ve all just come to terms with. As long as you aren’t being loud past quiet hours (usually 10 p.m.), your neighbor’s problem is with the building and apartment living in general. I would ignore this note unless you are making it so people can’t sleep at night, but that doesn’t sound like the case here. The good news is that they chose to be anonymous, so you can pretend you never saw it.
A: If enough of you experience it as a problem, maybe you can at some point approach the building management about the possibility of installing more insulation between the walls or in the floors. But generally, yes, this is an inescapable fact of urban living: You can do your level best to minimize noise, especially late at night and early in the morning, but you can’t eliminate it completely, and it’s not reasonable to ask people to live in near-silence.
Q. Update—re: Judaism as a choice (Dear Prudence podcast, Feb. 5, 2020): A couple months ago, you addressed my question on your show with Josh Gondelman. You actually also brought in your producer, Phil, to help out. I told you I had renounced Judaism years ago, but I was curious about whether I owed it to my Jewish friends to reembrace my Jewish identity because of rising anti-Semitism in the world.
You went into a lot of depth on the question, which I appreciate, but there’s one thing I wanted to sort of correct the record on. It was either Josh or Phil who suggested that the reason anti-Semitism might be causing me to ask this question is because something about it stuck out to me, as opposed to other forms of discrimination. They suggested that this could in fact be the start of a journey back to Judaism or at least toward some aspect of it. Here’s where I want to correct the record—my journey (or at least that part of it) is over. I’m not going back to Judaism. I have no desire to. I think the reason anti-Semitism struck me more than other forms of discrimination is because I chose to renounce Judaism. You said that it’s possible to be an ally to a community that’s discriminated against without being from that community; I believe you used the LGBTQIA+ community as an example. And while I agree that you can be an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community without being a part of it, it’s different with Judaism. I didn’t make the choice to renounce being LGBTQIA+ to be a cis het white guy. I didn’t leave that community. I deliberately gave up Judaism. It was a choice. I hope that makes sense. Sorry, it’s been a bit rambling. I just wanted to let you know that I did consider your response and it did help. So I appreciate it. Thanks.
A: Not rambling at all. Thank you so much for writing back and clarifying a bit regarding your priorities and sense of identity as you think about this. I don’t have a great deal to add here aside from continued affirmation that the existence of anti-Semitism does not require you to change your sense of identity or primary community. You of course can meaningfully oppose anti-Semitism regardless of your own personal relationship to Judaism. Thanks again, and be well.
Q. I can’t stay broken up with my homeless drunk of a boyfriend: I broke up with my long-time boyfriend for the fourth time yesterday. He’s a manipulator and a drunk and a narcissist but also fun and charming. I don’t have a lot of friends in this town, but I have joined some clubs and do some volunteering at an art gallery in order to see people. Seeing a therapist helps, and I also go to Al-Anon, but I don’t have a lot of friends here and I work at home. My ex has lots of homeless, unhealthy, alcoholic friends who hang out in the park. I am basically his job. He hangs out with me so he can afford his lifestyle of drinking in the park and still keep a roof over his head. I met him a few years ago in a larger city where he had normal friends and family members. He doesn’t speak to any of them anymore. He is no good, but I am kind of a weakling. Please advise. Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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