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Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hi, everyone. We’ve made it another week—let’s chat!
Q. Should I stay or go? I’m a straight cis woman. I’ve been dating this wonderful man for almost five months. Before this, I was single for about five years. He makes me so happy. We have so much in common, and for the first three months of our relationship I felt supported, cared for, and like I finally had someone in my corner. COVID-19 quite understandably threw everything up in the air. He has been separated from his wife for a year but has begun talking to her again and since the beginning of the crisis has pulled away from me. I am really hurt. While this crisis has crystallized my love for him, it’s perhaps crystallized his for his ex. I have told him I need a partner right now and want to be a partner for him. He has told me that he’s not sure he’s ready and doesn’t know when he will be.
Should I leave? He’s everything I want, but every day is painful and miserable knowing that he’s talking to her, that he’s missing his old life, and that we’re regressing. It also feels like this crisis is the worst time to make a decision like this and I’m not thinking clearly. I can’t escape from this desperate need to seek comfort and companionship from him and am constantly experiencing whiplash when it’s withdrawn.
A: You don’t sound to me like you’re having trouble thinking clearly. You sound like you’re in pain and like you really wish this guy would change his mind, but it doesn’t seem like you’re misreading the situation or like you’ve asked inappropriate questions at inopportune times. You say that every day is “miserable” with this guy because you know he’s calling up his wife and reinvesting in that relationship. You’ve told him straight up that what you want is a partner, and he’s told you in return that he has no idea if he’ll ever want to commit to you. Clarity is not missing from this situation. You’re thinking clearly, and he’s speaking clearly. He hasn’t taken the step to cut that final tie, but he’s told you what you can expect from him, and it’s not a partnership.
I understand that part of you hopes it’s just the stress of the present moment causing him to “regress,” and wonders if you can just wait it out a few more weeks so things will possibly settle down and he’ll snap out of his rediscovered love for his wife. But there’s no guarantee that COVID-19 is going to “settle down” anytime soon, and I don’t think you can secure his affections by waiting patiently and hoping he changes his mind. “Give me a call if you ever change your mind,” followed by a clean break, is probably the kindest and most self-respecting way out of this interminable situation. Maybe he’ll change his mind in a few months, maybe he won’t—but I don’t think you should settle for distracted, halfhearted commitment in the meantime.
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Q. Hair dye or me: Is it a mistake to break up with your girlfriend because she dyes her hair while you’re sheltering in place together? “Erica” insists on bleaching and dying her own hair, despite the fact that she hasn’t the patience or skills to do the complex looks she wants. Then she’s mopey through two attempts to save the hair, until she cuts it off. Plus, she refuses to clean the tub because she thinks it isn’t dirty, because it’s just color. But I hate it, so I get to spend an hour scrubbing the grout. It always gets on my nerves, but it happens two or three times a year so it’s just one of those things she does that bugs me. Like, I burn pans when I make soup in the winter, and it drives her up the wall. You don’t break up over stuff like that, though. Except, she’s already dyed her hair once since we were told to quarantine and now she’s going to do it again. I think if she does, I’m going to just burn this relationship down and divide our schedule so we never see each other. Is that an overreaction or not? Obviously, sheltering in place has made me less than tolerant right now. Or has it just compressed everything to give me a view of the future? Is how annoyed I am right now exactly how annoyed I’ll be in 10 years when she gives me our kid to keep distracted while she goes to ruin another bathroom?
A: I realize this isn’t the main part of your problem, but if you keep the heat relatively on medium low, use a heavy-bottomed pot, and stir frequently when you’re making soup, you’ll stop burning your pans. Also, here a few methods for cleaning burned pans so they look like new again—this is not an insurmountable problem but a relatively easy fix!
Any couple that lives together is going to eventually run into relatively low-stakes issues that, for whatever reason, drive them absolutely up the wall. You are of course allowed to break up with Erica if you feel like things just aren’t going anywhere, but I wonder if first you two can have an honest conversation about how you deal with difficult issues: “I realize you don’t think of hair dye as being dirty, and this only happens a few times a year, but it really bothers me to see the tub stained over something so avoidable, and to know that I’ll be spending an hour scrubbing it off. I know things are really stressful right now, and I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I really want your attention and help about this because I feel isolated and disrespected. I know I do things, like burn the pans, that are really frustrating for you too, and I want to stop doing that because I know how it feels.”
If it’s possible for the two of you to just admit that “X drives me crazy and it might not be the biggest deal in the world, but it would really go a long way toward making me feel cared for and respected if you did these two relatively small-scale things to take care of it,” without trying to assign blame or get defensive, you might make some real progress. Any partner you live with is going to have some habits that drive you nuts. That doesn’t mean you have to stay with Erica forever, but this will come up in future relationships, so it’s probably best to get a head start on it now.
Q. Passive job hunting: I was let go from my job amid the COVID-19 outbreak. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a job since I was 14 and have never been let go before. It feels horrible. It is extremely unlikely my former employer will be able to hire me back once things stabilize. I was a senior vice president for a major corporation. I think what’s confusing me even more right now is I’m in a weird funk that’s a combination of being stunned, depressed, and almost … lazy? Between unemployment and my savings, I’m in a fairly fortunate spot. I will be able to pay my bills just fine through the end of the year. That said, I’m not in any rush to find a job. Initially I was frantically applying to anything that fit into my general sphere—but many, many hours of that led to emails from every single company indicating they are no longer hiring for the roles due to the changing circumstances. I’m no longer motivated and almost want to take this as an opportunity to reevaluate my career path. This makes me feel like crap, though, as I feel like I should be dedicating my time to nothing else but finding a job. If I take some time to decompress from this, so to speak, is that OK? The chances of finding another job at my level right now are slim to none, and I have been employed without any gaps for 17 years. I guess what I’m asking for is permission to stop and smell the roses (with a face mask on, of course).
A: You can certainly have it, although I don’t think what you’re describing quite counts as “smelling the roses”: You’re contemplating taking some time to reevaluate your career path and figure out what other fields or roles you might be suited for. That’s still time dedicated toward the general prospect of “finding a job.” The weird funk makes a great deal of sense to me, given the circumstances. You’re not facing an immediate financial crisis, and this strategy should hopefully make the job-searching process a little easier when eventually you do start applying again. I say go for it, and good luck.
Q. I don’t want to go home: I am a college student. I live on a campus far away from my parents, and I’m happy with this arrangement. However, due to this COVID-19 situation, my parents are extremely worried about my health and want me to go back to live with them. I know it’s safer for me to go back to my parents’ home, but I have no love for them. I know if I go back there I will be depressed, and I never feel the greatest when I stay there. I’m afraid to say this to them. I’ve never received emotional support from them; they don’t understand the importance of emotional support. I stay in touch with them only out of obligation. I know they love me the only way they know how to love, and I hate that I feel this way. But I really do not want to go home for the sake of my mental health. What do I tell them?
A: Since you don’t mention that you’re dependent on your parents, I’ll assume that you’re able to continue sheltering in place, even against their wishes, without running into financial trouble. You certainly don’t have to tell your parents, “If I go back home with you, I’ll be miserable,” in order to stay where you are. You have a number of explanations available to you, from “I appreciate your concern. I’m really safe here, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I need anything” to “I think it’s safer for me to stay here than to risk traveling to you right now,” to something as bland and open-ended as “Thank you so much for the offer. I really appreciate it, and I’ll let you know if I think it’s necessary.”
Q. Invasive questions: My boyfriend of eight months, “Adrian,” has a skin condition that causes his scar tissue to be darker, raises it from the rest of the skin, and makes it very noticeable. His hands are heavily scarred from cooking burns, job accidents, childhood injuries, etc. He’s a bit insecure about it, but I’ve assured him that his scars are just another part of him I love. But recently I took Adrian to a family event, and I was horrified by how many of my relatives thought it was acceptable to comment on his scars! One of my aunts even gasped aloud and asked what happened to him. I would expect that behavior from kids in the family, but certainly not from adults—I was embarrassed and upset by my family’s behavior. Adrian handled it very well, as he’s used to fielding those kinds of rude and personal questions, but am I overreacting to be worried about introducing him to the rest of my family? Is there a way to ask my family members not to comment on his scars?
A: I’m so sorry your relatives treated Adrian so rudely. You certainly can ask the rest of them not to comment on his scars. All you have to do is say, “I’m really excited for you to meet Adrian. I’m embarrassed to even have to mention this because I’m sure it would never enter your head to do such a thing, but sometimes when I’ve introduced Adrian to friends of mine, they’ve asked very rude and intrusive questions about his scars. But I know you’ll be friendly, polite, and beautifully mannered when you meet him. You always are.”
Q. The new neighbor: I live in a condo that has thin walls (didn’t learn that until after we bought the place). Adding insulation is not an option. A week or so before we began social distancing, an elderly woman moved into the unit that backs up to ours. The layout is such that our master bedrooms and bathrooms back up to each other. I have seen her and waved to her, but there’s been no formal “Hi, my name is” or any of that. I’m actually one of the people in the condo who doesn’t participate in many of the activities around here anyway because I’m one of the few with school-age children and most of the others here are older and retired. I believe this woman is hard of hearing, as I have been awakened on the weekends to a morning show (I recognize the theme music) and I can tell what she’s watching on the weekday mornings. In the afternoons, my husband or I will end up in the bedroom to do something for work since we’re all trying to do our own thing in a two-bedroom condo, and we have a son who is finishing the school year through distance learning. She’s got the television on and we can hear it in the afternoon. There are times when I have needed to nap, and even with a white noise machine and while listening to thunderstorms through noise-canceling earbuds, I can still hear her television. It also sounds like she might have the TV set to a timer function or she’s just a night owl, because her TV is still going at 1:30.
We have a rule at our condo that smokers aren’t allowed to smoke on their patios because the smoke drifts and that means that if you smoke, I might not be able to enjoy my patio. When that rule went into effect, some people (the smokers) really got upset. I’m not a smoker, but I understood: The homeowners association was telling people what they couldn’t do on their own property. This isn’t the same thing, though. This is an older woman who is likely hard of hearing. And I haven’t even met her formally yet, but her television is making sleep challenging—and if she can’t hear the TV, then of course the volume is going to be higher. I’m chronically ill and sympathetic to those who live with conditions they cannot control. I also need my sleep. The condo was only used seasonally before this woman bought it, so we really didn’t have this problem until now. How do I approach this situation? I know I need to be delicate, but I can’t figure out the right thing to say without coming across like a complete bitch.
A: This is a challenge because I think the real problem here is that your condo has incredibly thin walls. It may be that even if you’re able to have a friendly conversation with her and she’s receptive to your request and turns the volume down, the noise still carries into your bedroom—ultimately there’s a limit on how quiet she can be. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t ask! Just prepare for even cheerful compliance on her part to be an imperfect solution. You two are already on a friendly “waving-hello” basis, so the next time she waves at you, introduce yourself (staying a minimum of 6 feet away from her, etc.), ask how she’s holding up, chat companionably for a minute or two, and then make your request. You can cushion it with a lot of “I’m sorry to ask about this” and “Would you mind terribly?” and blaming the thin walls, but it’s a perfectly reasonable request. (It should go without saying that you do not need to mention your theory that she is hard of hearing; maybe she is and maybe she isn’t, but you don’t need to speculate during this conversation).
If she’s amenable, great! I hope it makes a big difference. But telling your neighbor, “You may not have realized this, but our shared wall is quite thin, and the sound of your TV comes right into our bedroom—is there any chance you could turn down the volume?” is not a “bitchy” move. It’s a neighborly request!
Q. Kicking out a tenant in a pandemic: I opened my house and let this young girl live in my bedroom attic for six months. She was living in her car during winter because she refuses to live with her dad. She was basically homeless. I felt bad for her. We have a written shared house agreement for six months only, and it will end on June 30. We agreed not to renew. I don’t want to get sued for kicking her out during this coronavirus outbreak. I am not kicking her out due to nonpayment, but because we agreed in writing and verbally that she’s only staying in my house for six months. I also had some issues with her, like her not cleaning her room so when she opens her door it stinks up my entire house. I have OCD and am a clean-freak person. I don’t like having her in my house anymore because of her poor hygiene, and I have a compromised immune system as well. She doesn’t clean her dishes and is always giving me reason to want her to move out. Again, my only concern is, am I going to be in trouble for kicking my tenant out during the coronavirus, even if it’s not due to nonpayment?
A: “How can I avoid legal trouble for evicting a tenant” is not a question for an advice columnist but for a lawyer with a detailed knowledge of eviction laws in your city and state.
Q. Re: Passive job hunting: I was in a similar spot a few years ago. My frantic job hunt led me to a role that was financially lucrative but slowly sucked out my soul and made me miserable. Take the time you need and find a really good fit. It’s not worth going from the frying pan into the fire for the sake of finding anything at all just so you can say you did.
A: With the one caveat that the job market today looks pretty different than how it looked a few years ago, I think this is good advice! The fact that the letter writer is having trouble even getting an interview for the type of job they used to have and no longer want seems to be a pretty good indicator that a change is called for.
Q. Re: The new neighbor: She should definitely mention it to the neighbor! As someone with hearing issues, I’ve definitely found that my recently acquired hearing aids make a big difference; I have lowered the volume on my set quite a bit. There are also subtitles that you can switch on to help. The woman may not even realize how loud the TV is.
A: I’m so glad these have proved helpful for you! I do think the letter writer should wait to suggest these alternatives unless and until their neighbor volunteers any information about their hearing or displays a willingness to try turning down the volume, because I think opening with “Your TV is awfully loud. Are you hard of hearing? I think subtitles would help” is too forceful. But maybe someone else is reading who’s struggling with the same thing and finds this useful. And who knows! Maybe the neighbor will mention having a hard time following along with the TV and our the letter writer will be able to offer these suggestions at just the right moment.
Q. Re: Passive job hunting: I think people need to remember that unemployment is being paid by taxpayer dollars. So I understand not applying to as many jobs, but part of taking unemployment is actively applying for employment. Now is clearly a different time, but I think it’s important to remember where your unemployment is coming from: hardworking people who want to give a helping hand. If you’re are able to work and can get a job, then take it.
A: The letter writer should of course do whatever is necessary to comply with the formal requirements for receiving unemployment. Within those restrictions, if they’re looking for permission to not spend every waking moment applying for jobs they know they’re not going to pursue, they can certainly have it. If, in addition to sending out applications to jobs they know they’re unlikely to get, the letter writer wants to focus the rest of their energies on developing a new strategy for switching industries, I think that’s a great idea.
Q. Should I tell my BFF I slept with her husband? “Laura” and I have been best friends since we were 10. Four years ago her husband, “James,” needed my help on a work-related matter and came over without Laura, who was busy with something else. It involved a very difficult and tedious task, and we decided to make it more tolerable by bringing out some wine. That night James and I ended up sleeping together. I always had a small, harmless crush on James but never in my wildest dreams fantasized about acting on it until that night. We both felt very guilty afterward. I even tried to cut off contact with Laura for awhile, but she kept calling me in tears asking what she’d done wrong. I feel horrible, and I am not even attracted to James anymore. We avoid each other as best as we can. I’m struggling with whether I should confess to Laura or not. I can’t get over what I did, but should I tell her? 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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