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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: Afternoon, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Family dish-turbance: When I met my girlfriend of two years, I knew she was a little eco-friendlier than I was, and I resolved to be more like her. Fast forward two years and her eco-friendliness has turned into a persistent conflict that we can’t seem to get past. “Ellie” will only wash dishes by hand, with recycled water (e.g., pouring water from one bowl into another over and over). She’ll let dishes pile up for a few days in the sink before beginning this process. I much prefer to put them in the dishwasher immediately—I have a weak stomach and the mixture of old smells makes me feel sick. Ellie gets upset with me when I do this. I grew up poor without a dishwasher; now that we have one, it’s incomprehensible to me that we wouldn’t use it. Ellie’s dishwashing method saves water, sure, but it leaves our kitchen a mess and causes a conflict every time we need to do dishes. I feel irrational for saying this, but is a vast difference in dishwashing styles a rationale for a breakup? We literally have no other conflicts other than this, and for some reason, we’ve both dug our heels in. Dishes will come up millions of times in our future life together. I just can’t see how we will ever come to an agreement.
A: Your girlfriend’s dishwashing strategy isn’t “eco-friendly.” Nor do I think the word washing can be correctly applied to “letting dishes stew in old, crusted-on food particles for several days, then giving them a gentle bath in the same water, over and over again.” It’s dangerous to her health and yours, and “saving water” at the expense of an E. coli outbreak is hardly an unqualified good. If you can, try showing her the kind of dishwashing instructions restaurants are required to comply with according to health regulations, or information about just how energy- and water-efficient modern dishwashers can be. It’s possible to safely and efficiently wash dishes by hand or by machine, but your girlfriend is doing neither: She’s slopping dirty water over dirty dishes and calling that “clean.” Whatever magical thinking she’s attached to this practice, there’s no justification for it, and it’s a danger to the health of your household. I hope you don’t break up over this. I hope you’re able to speak to a doctor about this, and/or a therapist, so that your girlfriend can get a sense of just how unsafe this practice is and possibly figure out why she feels so threatened at the prospect of using a dishwasher. But if you can’t make any progress, and you decide to break up with her as a result, I don’t think you’re being unreasonable or inflexible.
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Q. Boyfriend not ready to move in: I’ve been with my boyfriend for a little over two years, and we were friends before our romantic relationship. We are both in our mid-20s. I love him and we have a great relationship, but he says he is not ready to live together because he needs his own space. I respect that—however, he cannot give me any indication as to when he might want to progress things. He just says vague things like “one day we will.” I find this incredibly frustrating—I am OK not to move in right now, but I just want some indication that it will happen in the next year or two and not in the next 10. I feel like I’m in relationship limbo. I enjoy having personal space too, but I don’t think living together means I have to give that all up!? What should I do?
A: It’s tricky in cases like this, where neither person wants something unreasonable, because then the best advice I have for you is simply: “Be honest with yourself about what you can accept and compromise on, and what you can’t. Then be honest with your partner about the same.” If you’re fine with not living together in the next two years but would be ready to walk if he still didn’t want to live together in five, then say so—not in the sense of offering a demand or an ultimatum, but so you two can figure out whether you’re compatible in the long run. You might find, a few years down the road, that things are continuing to go so well that it feels relatively easy and nonthreatening to revisit the conversation. Or you might feel like you’re hounding him or that the idea of living together feels like a burden or an imposition, which in turn makes you feel unwanted, and you decide to break up as a result. Either outcome is a good one, even if they wouldn’t feel good in the same way at the same time.
Q. My husband’s affair partner talked to my daughter: My husband, “Ted,” had an 18-month-long affair with his co-worker “Angela.” The affair began when I was pregnant with our first child, “Lois,” and ended six months ago, when I found out. At the height of the affair Ted would take our infant daughter to the office on the weekends to give me a break. I have since learned that Angela would meet him (at the office or hotels) and they’d have sex while Lois slept in another room. I am eight months pregnant with our second child and could not have afforded to leave Ted before the pandemic began; I certainly can’t now. Ted, to his credit, has done a lot to begin to rebuild my trust in him, including being an open book. He and Angela could both lose their jobs if their employer found out about the affair, so I don’t want to expose them and lose what financial security our family has. At the same time, I made it clear Angela is to stay the hell away from Lois. She used to fawn over Lois when we visited Ted at work, and the memories make my skin crawl. I have spoken to Angela only once in the past six months, and that was all I said to her.
Ted now works from home. On Friday he had a Zoom call with his team, which includes Angela. While I was making Lois lunch she wandered into Ted’s office, and when I went to grab her, I caught Angela asking Lois questions: “How old are you? Are you excited to be a big sister?” I grabbed Lois without saying anything, gave her lunch, went to our bathroom, and burst into tears. I am livid at myself for letting Lois wander away because I can’t afford to be angry at Angela. Ted tried his best to comfort me, and he agrees Angela was out of line, but he doesn’t feel there’s anything he can do. Lois was in Ted’s office for less than two minutes:. Is it a violation of our previous agreement that Angela talked to Lois? Or was she just being a polite co-worker? I don’t know anymore.
A: I’m so sorry you have to deal with this in the middle of everything else. I agree that Ted can’t reasonably say to one of his co-workers, “Don’t acknowledge my child if she wanders into the room during a video conference,” but neither do I think it should fall to you to mind Lois every minute of Ted’s workday. Can Ted agree, if Lois ever comes into his office while he’s on a work call, that he’ll be responsible for greeting her and getting her back out of the room without calling on you? Hopefully his employer is at least somewhat flexible with occasional disruptions from employees’ kids now that so many people are working from home.
I don’t want to speculate on Angela’s motives (who am I kidding—I really want to speculate about Angela’s motives! But I shouldn’t, and it wouldn’t help you any), so I’ll just outline the limitations of your current situation: Ted should avoid bringing his personal issues into the workplace as much as possible, which means he shouldn’t tell any of his co-workers (even ones he previously had an affair with) they can’t acknowledge his children if they pop up on screen. Ted should also avoid, as much as possible, placing the burden on of smoothing over any awkward or painful interactions that may arise as a result of his infidelity on you.
Q. Unemployed during COVID-19 outbreak: I got laid off in early January—a bit before things got dicey here from COVID-19. I was a senior vice president and so happy at my company. Unfortunately a piece of it was sold and some of the casualties included me. It was the first time I’ve ever been “let go” from any job. I was very upset—feeling worthless, questioning my experience, etc. I was in interviews with three places for other senior VP positions when COVID-19 became all-encompassing. For two of those jobs, I had flown to different states for the final in-person interviews. For one, I already had an offer letter. After COVID-19 broke out stateside, all three rescinded due to no longer hiring for those roles. I understood, but it felt terrible all the same.
Two of those companies have reposted the jobs this week. I can’t help but feel slighted. Were they being genuine about their ability or willingness to hire? Would it be appropriate to email HR to follow up to ask if I could have been better?
A: I’m so sorry—that’s such a precarious and frustrating position to find yourself in, and I know that under the circumstances I’d be tempted to get in touch too. It’s possible, if you had a good rapport with a recruiter or interviewer at one of these companies, to ask if there’s anything you could have done differently (rather than “better”)—but I don’t think you’re going to get much satisfaction from that route. Maybe they realized the role was going to have to change and they’d need an entirely different pool of candidates. Maybe they’re looking to cut costs by hiring someone with less experience who will accept a lower salary. My guess is that whatever answer they give you, assuming they respond at all, will have much less to do with how you can improve yourself as a candidate and much more to do with how they as companies have been struggling to adjust to a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
Suffering from not one but multiple jarring and unexpected rejections is difficult for anyone, and it’s perfectly understandable that you want to ask why. But whatever their reasons, plausible or not, the decision is the same. No matter what answer these companies give you, they’re still not going to hire you. I think it’s a better use of your time and energy to shake this off and start looking elsewhere.
Q. Emotions don’t match thoughts: My partner and I have been together about eight years. We’ve both been unhappy with our relationship for a while now. We were finally able to be honest with each other and each expressed that we know we love the other—we would die for each other—but often we don’t feel much of anything for each other. We know we love each other but we’re not feeling it. And it’s not limited to our relationships. He expressed thinking about how he loves a family member but feels nothing when he sees them and wonders if he’d be sad if they died. He says he doesn’t care about anything he is supposed to care about. And I can completely relate—I’ve started noticing how often it feels like I’m miming the appropriate emotional response that I want to have or should have (joy, excitement, appreciation, etc.) but not actually feeling it. With the exception of my dog (who makes my heart hurt with love and makes me genuinely smile) it seems like the only emotions I actually feel regularly are negative (sadness, frustration, disappointment). We don’t care if we lose our jobs (though we know we’re lucky to still have them), and we don’t care what happens to us. What is wrong with us? Or is this normal and is everyone just faking their way through life? Where do we go from here?
A: With the important caveat that I can’t live inside of anyone else’s head and report directly on what they’re feeling or experiencing with perfect accuracy, I think what you’re describing—the depersonalization, lack of motivation, inability to access joy, constant frustration and disappointment, sense of disconnect between what you want (or think you ought) to feel and what you actually feel—sounds a lot like clinical depression. Most of your letter has to do with negative claims (I can’t feel X, I no longer feel Y, I’m unable to produce Z) except for your love you have for your boyfriend, which you express as a shared death wish. I realize that’s a common expression of devotion, but I think it’s worth paying attention to, especially when taken in context of the rest of your letter. That’s not to say there aren’t a number of other related underlying conditions, and I certainly can’t offer you a diagnosis, but feeling this way all of the time isn’t an inevitable reaction to the condition of being alive.
I don’t want to make claims about what is or isn’t normal, or what you might expect from various kinds of treatment, but I can tell you this is worth bringing up with a doctor and a mental health professional, that it would merit careful attention from them, that a number of possible treatments (including but not limited to medication) would be available to you, and that you could expect real help in dealing with what sounds like a deeply heavy, deeply painful internal condition.
Q. Coronavirus roommates: My girlfriend and a friend of a friend both live with me, in my house. My girlfriend and I have been following the advice put out by the CDC and the state on social distancing, but our roommate who works in a private clinic has not because he says there aren’t that many cases in our state yet, “the curve is flattening,” and no one can socially distance perfectly 100 percent since you still see people at parks and restaurants. He has said that he is maybe being selfish but he feels the risk is low enough for him to visit friends (we are all below 30) and he can’t go without social interaction. Is it ethical to ask him to find another place to stay until the situation resolves? We aren’t on the best of terms, and I am the landlord as well.
A: I realize no one enjoys—well, almost no one enjoys—house meetings, particularly with a housemate one already isn’t on “the best of terms” with, but I think that’s your next step before kicking him out. Have a meeting, just the three of you, and set aside some time for a difficult and contentious conversation where you talk about your various expectations and priorities and try to see what compromises, if any, you can agree upon as a house. If he says something like “No one can socially distance perfectly,” you can say, “I agree, but I don’t want to let the fact that we can’t do something perfectly keep us from establishing safe, reasonable best practices.” If there are certain deal breakers for you and your girlfriend that would result in you wanting to ask him to leave, tell him so rather than silently disapproving when he says, “I can’t go without social interaction,” all while planning on kicking him out. Be explicit about what you can compromise on and what you can’t, bear in mind that as his landlord you carry a degree of power over him that you can’t do away with by simply pretending it isn’t there, and be prepared to have more than one difficult, tense, in-person conversation before telling him to clear off. And don’t pretend that “ask[ing] him to find another place” is merely a question. You’re his landlord. Asking him to find another place is eviction.
Q. Is this stalking? I’ve been with my husband for almost four years. We have a trusting, loving relationship without too many hang-ups, but I’ve noticed a weird trend. Every few months, I’ll get a friend request from a different ex of his on social media. The first time this happened, I naïvely interpreted this as just a friendly attempt to get in touch. Only later I found out she considered me a homewrecker. (To my knowledge, there has been no overlap with any of these people who have sent these requests.) Then they just kept coming, to the point where we laugh about it when it happens. Both of us are very moderate posters on social media, so it’s not like we’re overly flaunting our relationship, and I don’t have any jealousy issues over these requests. I’m just wondering if this is considered normal behavior, or if my husband was a Casanova in a prior life, or if I’m missing some kind of 2020 memo that anyone who’s ever slept with my partner feels the need to connect on Facebook. These are people I’ve barely, if ever, met in person. Please help me understand. I would be mortified to do this to any of my exes.
A: I agree that it’s odd! A number of possibilities spring to mind: It could potentially be one ex making a series of sock puppet accounts in an attempt to get your attention, or your husband has been less than honest about the “overlap” between his various exes, or your husband has dated a lot of people who behave oddly online, etc. There’s nothing much you need to do about it aside from continuing to decline friend requests from people you don’t know. I suppose, if you’re curious on what grounds the first ex considered you a “homewrecker,” you could ask your husband about it, at some time when you both feel prepared to talk about it without either laughing at her expense or jumping to make accusations. But in the absence of more information, I don’t think I can make a definitive ruling along the lines of “they’re all bad actors and your husband is perfect” or “your husband is clearly a dog and having eight simultaneous affairs.” It’s just … odd!
Q. Re: Boyfriend not ready to move in: This sounds like a good opportunity to ask your boyfriend some questions about his fears: not to convince him that he shouldn’t have any or that you should move in together very soon, but just to learn a little more about him before making any decisions. “I need my space” is the other side of “I’m afraid of losing something that comes with having a place to myself.” What is he afraid of when it comes to the idea of living with a romantic partner? Is there anything you can do to reassure him that he has less to fear than he thinks he does? What does he love about living alone, and what does that mean to him when it comes to long-term committed relationships?
A: Those are useful questions! It will help, I think, not to treat this merely as commitment-shyness but as an active value of his—there are a lot of truly lovely, unique things about living alone. Learning more about what kinds of time and space he values having to himself is a good thing in itself because it’s good to know your partner well. Some of this may very well have to do with fears you can address, but some of it may have nothing to do with fear at all. I don’t want to treat “living alone” as the fears-based option and “living together” as the open, accepting, nonfearful option.
Q. My boyfriend uploaded videos of himself to a porn site: I have been dating a terrific guy, “Jason,” for about five months now (we’re both dudes, if it matters). He’s everything I’ve been looking for but there’s a problem: He has an Xtube page up. I introduced him to my friend “Bob,” who is an avid watcher of online porn. Bob later told me about the page and sent me the link to it. (I made Bob promise not to tell anyone; he’s a great friend and I’m not worried about him spreading the word.) Basically it’s nine videos of Jason masturbating with his face showing in a few of them. I was mortified seeing the videos and cried privately. I don’t know what to do. This is the best relationship I’ve been in in years. Jason is attentive and caring and is interested in taking our union further, but I don’t know if I can ever trust him. I’m not interested in having a boyfriend whose naughty bits are on display for the whole world to see! If it matters he apparently hasn’t logged on or uploaded any new videos to his porn page in over a year. What should I do? 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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