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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: My goodness, weeks just keep happening one right after the other, don’t they? Let’s chat.
Q. Nothing has changed, but … : Five years ago I broke up with “Amy” because she couldn’t have children. I felt awful about it, but having a family had always been important to me, and she wasn’t interested in adoption or surrogacy right from the start. We just couldn’t imagine a future where we were happy. Then about a week before shelter-in-place orders started, I ran into Amy at a farmer’s market. She was six months pregnant. We talked for a while, I congratulated her, and she asked if I was a dad yet. When she found out I wasn’t she said that this baby could have been mine if I’d passed her test. According to Amy she’d never been told she was infertile—she just wanted to see if I loved her enough to give up on being a dad. So she lied for over four months until we broke up.
I can’t get over it. I don’t know if it is because I’m stuck inside on my own or what, but it just eats at me. It’s not the “what if” of it all. I am just angry and frustrated. The fact that I felt guilty for years because of a lie makes me feel like an idiot. The fact that she came up with this out of nowhere makes me feel like I never knew her. Who does something like that? Maybe if I talk it out with someone it would be better, but it doesn’t really seem like a phone conversation. Plus my brother’s a doctor and my parents are both at-risk, so they have enough stress without my five-years-ago trauma. Heck, it might help just to go to the bar and hang out with friends. I mean, I’d finally have something to add to the “weird ex” conversations. Except she doesn’t seem to be one. She’s got a job and a husband, and it’s just this one pretty strange thing? (Also, I can’t go anywhere.)
This was a really weird thing to do, right? How do I stop chewing on something like this?
A: This is unutterably bizarre. I’m so sorry you learned something so jarring and painful, especially a mere week before having to shelter in place. Of course you feel angry and frustrated. What Amy told you—which may have been true, and may have simply been a cruel jibe she invented on the spot in order to hurt you—was gratuitously brutal. Please don’t convince yourself that no one in your life wants to hear about your pain. If you’re that worried about your relatives’ ability to absorb bad news, you can always check in first: “I heard something really shocking and painful recently, and I’d like to talk about it with someone. I know you’re [very busy at the hospital or dealing with a lot of stress of your own, etc.] right now, so let me know if you’d rather talk about it later or if I should talk to another friend first. But I’d like to talk about it with you sometime, if you’re able.” That way, if they really are too stressed out to listen to you, you can trust they’ll let you know. But don’t convince yourself without even asking that they can’t handle hearing that someone’s hurt you.
As for your other questions—it was beyond a weird thing to do. Of course you find yourself wondering whether you ever really knew her and have trouble squaring this bizarre, awful, unloving trick with the idea of an otherwise normal person/employee/wife/mother. I think you may be chewing on this for a little while: It throws a really significant relationship in your life in a completely new light, and you shouldn’t expect to simply shrug it off after a day or two. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. You have every right to be shocked and hurt and angry. Give yourself a lot of time to feel that way, and please do reach out to as many people as you possibly can. You need and deserve a lot of support right now.
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Q. My roommate’s son’s bathroom habits: My roommate and I get along very well—he’s divorced and has his son every other weekend, and occasionally at other times. His son is 7 and generally well-behaved, but his bathroom hygiene is terrible and getting worse. Today, after going to the bathroom, the child came out with feces all over his hands. There were also smears on the toilet paper roll, the toilet seat, the handle, the lid, and the sink. I know this because even though my roommate got his son cleaned up, he failed to clean anything else in the bathroom. This happens often. The child also regularly misses the bowl when he urinates. I’m not sure how to approach my roommate with this subject—you’d think he’d clean up after his child—but this can’t continue. I’m getting tired of having to clean up after him and I’m very low on patience.
A: Oh, you don’t have to come up with an “approach” to broaching the subject with your roommate. If you see any stains in the bathroom, on his kid, or anywhere else, alert him immediately. “Tom, Fauntleroy needs help cleaning up after using the bathroom. You need to come here right away” is all that’s needed. Please don’t try to couch it in appeals or act like everything’s fine if Tom cleans up halfheartedly and leaves a mess behind: “Tom, there’s still fecal matter in the sink. Please take care of it. It needs to be bleached and sanitized right away.”
Maybe there are underlying developmental issues, or maybe his kid is regressing and going through a difficult time; that’s not your problem and you don’t have to worry about long-term solutions to this problem. That’s for Tom and his ex to handle. But as Tom’s roommate, it’s really not your responsibility to clean up after his son, especially when it comes to intimate personal hygiene. (It’s one thing to occasionally tidy up after a shared mess but quite another to take over bathroom training.) Do not clean up after him anymore; do not let it go unremarked upon; do not treat this as anything other than Tom’s problem, one that needs to be dealt with immediately and thoroughly every single time it happens. To the best of your ability, try to minimize any big reactions of shock or disgust in front of the kid, because he’s 7 and struggling and you don’t want to make him feel like a gross burden. But that doesn’t mean you have to act cheerful or totally neutral about alerting his dad. He needs to handle this—every time it happens.
Q. Remember when we had privacy? This shelter-in-place order has us holding tight to our loved ones, sometimes in tighter quarters than we’d prefer. A healthy relationship with one’s body is important. And yet, my partner feels slighted when I don’t invite him to the party. My partner and I have healthy libidos and a great sexual relationship. He does not view masturbation as preferable to good old-fashioned sex. Is there a polite way to explain that I use this time for relaxation more than arousal? Can’t a gal get a few minutes uninterrupted without guilt? I want to throw my feminist card. Is it a double standard, or am I that asshole?
A: I think it’s perfectly polite to say “I like to masturbate, and it’s important to me to have alone time to relax and focus on myself. I like having sex with you too, but these are two different drives, and wanting one doesn’t necessarily mean I want to switch it out for the other.” You don’t have to worry too much about either feminism or politeness here, I think. If he’s concerned or hurt about the frequency of your sex life, you can have a separate conversation about that, of course. But masturbation falls under the general suite of basic private habits that everyone’s entitled to (if they choose to be). So it’s fine to hear your boyfriend out, and to reassure him if necessary, or to talk about what’s a reasonable balance of alone time versus time spent together when you’re both sharing fairly close quarters—but ultimately even if your boyfriend thinks masturbation is merely a poor substitute for sex, you can simply agree to disagree and continue to prioritize it in your own alone time.
Q. Gift-giving: I have a question regarding gift-giving etiquette. In lockdown, I had been dreaming of doing a spa weekend with friends “when this is over.” I haven’t mentioned it to my friends yet but have been saving for it (wasn’t going to mention it until I could afford it). However, I was talking to my mother about this and she thinks it’s a terrible idea because it’s “buying friendship” and “if they want to go away with you, they’ll pay for themselves.” The thing is, I trust they do want to go away with me, but I think if I suggest a spa weekend, they probably would want to stay in a cheaper hotel and spa because of finances, whereas I would rather pay more because I have my heart set on accommodation in this particular place (and also experiencing said accommodation with them). I don’t think they “couldn’t” afford it, but I don’t think they would choose to spend as much on a spa break weekend.
Now that my mum’s said this, I am of two minds—I had only thought of it in positive terms before. I know we’d all really enjoy it, but I don’t want to be seen as buying friendship, or make people uncomfortable with the offer. I had planned on being like: “I bought this hotel voucher. I’d love to share the experience with you guys if you fancy it.” But is this something you just shouldn’t do or offer? I’m actually considering doing this for two weekends with two different groups and two different hotels. I’ve previously been on holiday with both groups, but one group is more long-standing—20 years of friendship—whereas the other group is much newer, so my concern applies mainly to the second group, but your answer may well apply to both!
A: I think there’s a very long road between offering a one-off treat to your friends—even a relatively expensive treat like a weekend at a spa—and attempting to buy friendship. If you’re able to save up the money, and assuming it’s safe to do so, I can’t see any reason you should worry that this offer would somehow taint your relationships, especially with the people you’ve known for 20 years.
That said, if you think your friends would welcome having their expenses paid for but might still like to give some input into how this trip is arranged, you might consider telling them: “At [X] date, or when it’s safe to do so, I want us to stay at [Y Hotel] and get spa treatments—my treat. It would be a joy and a pleasure to get to take you all out to relax and unwind together. Would you like to come?” You can act as host while still allowing them some time to think of what they’d like to do there too. And be sure to factor “tipping generously” into your budget.
Q. Stimulus check drama: I am currently saving up to purchase a house. I’ve been saving up for a couple years now, and when I got my stimulus check, I applied it to that. So I’ll be ready to start looking for a house soon. When I mentioned to some friends and family that I was adding it to my house fund, they all called me selfish and said that if I didn’t need the money, I should use it to pay for someone else’s bills, buy food for a food bank, or give to charity. I hadn’t really thought of using my check for that and I’ve already contributed some money and food to community relief. I’m starting to wonder whether I am selfish for keeping it. Should I keep it or give it away?
A: You are, of course, free to spend or save or donate your own money as you like, according to your own best judgment and not merely on your friend’s say-so. That said, if you normally respect your friends’ opinions and can afford to donate more money without falling behind on your bills, why not write another check to your local food bank? It doesn’t sound like this single check is going to make the difference between becoming a homeowner this year versus having to scrimp and save for another five, so I don’t think you need to overthink things. Make a second donation to an organization you trust to do good work (and consider making small, recurring donations a part of your monthly budget, not just in times of crisis) and continue to move forward with your homebuying plans.
Q. Gender fender benders: I got engaged in March, and we to-be-weds immediately moved in together. Since I started referring to them as “fiancé” and not “partner,” there’s been a huge uptick in people assuming my fiancé is a man since I am a woman. They’re a nonbinary person with a gender-neutral nickname (think “Jay”) and a very feminine birth name. My landlord repeatedly used “his” and “him” pronouns before “Jay” applied for the lease and then switched to a formal tone using their birth name after application. My very friendly and accepting neighbors refer to us as “the girls” or “ladies,” which we don’t love. What are my responsibilities here? My fiancé doesn’t care enough to correct acquaintances, but I find the longer someone goes down the wrong road, the more offended or flustered they are when corrected, whether by me or by happenstance.
A: It might be worth running any potential strategies past your partner just to make sure you’re both on the same page. I don’t know if Jay’s “doesn’t care enough to correct acquaintances” stance is borne out of nonchalance (“If we’re not close I’m not especially interested in how this person refers to me”) or pragmatism (“People often get offended and flustered when I tell them I use gender-neutral pronouns, so it’s not worth the effort unless we’re actually close). I imagine that might make a difference in how you proceed.
But assuming Jay is fine with you offering low-key corrections on their behalf, you don’t need to overthink this, especially when it comes to your landlord: “Oh, they go by Jay, actually, not [birth name].” If your neighbors are friendly and welcoming, you’re on even firmer ground. You can start with a pleasantry or an expression of gratitude for whatever friendly thing they’ve just said and then mention you don’t use “ladies” or “girls” to refer to yourselves since Jay is nonbinary. If you like, you can mention an alternative you prefer, but that’s not at all necessary; it’s still perfectly polite and neighborly for them to say: “Hey, you two! How’s everything?”
You have framed this as a question of responsibility, so I want to leave open the very real possibility that Jay doesn’t really mind these well-intended but off-the-mark forms of address from your landlord and neighbors. If that’s the case, and you don’t really mind either (but were prepared to say something on your partner’s behalf), you can also let it pass without remark. It’s optional and dependent on your preferences as a couple.
Q. Friends won’t remove shoes in my house: I ask people to remove their shoes in my home. We don’t wear our shoes in our house, and I don’t want strangers doing it either. Some friends of ours refuse to take their shoes off; they say they are more comfortable wearing their shoes. Given that this is a personal preference as opposed to a cultural thing, I acquiesce to them wearing them in the house. I don’t like it, but I also don’t want to be a controlling host. However when they sit on our furniture they will tuck their legs under them, thus putting their shoes on our couches and chairs. I’ve asked a few times, politely, if they could not put their shoes on the couch or chair. They apologize but then will do it again because it’s a natural or subconscious habit. I realize now I should have made a bigger deal about them taking their shoes off from the get-go. As social distancing opens back up and we have them over again, how can I make it clear that the shoes need to come off, without making it weird or uncomfortable?
A: You can ask your guests to remove their shoes at the threshold simply because it’s cleaner and more hygienic (thus meaning less work for you after your guests have left) even if that’s not part of your cultural background! There are plenty of excellent reasons to adopt this practice. If you have friends who would be surprised or unprepared to follow along, you can mention your no-shoes-inside policy to them before offering an invitation so they can prepare, and/or have a supply of relatively inexpensive house slippers or cozy, attractive socks on hand to offer your guests. That might make things easier in case someone is embarrassed to remove their shoes and reveal mismatched or threadbare socks. But mentioning it early, matter-of-factly, and as a matter of cleanliness will make it easier to make sure everyone complies. It’s a reasonable rule to have as a host!
Q. Re: Remember when we had privacy? A food metaphor might help here. Sometimes it’s incredibly satisfying to make and eat a fancy, delicious meal together with your partner, but sometimes it’s also delightful to just make a piece of cinnamon toast with butter and enjoy it all by yourself with a book, getting crumbs all over the pages. It’s indulgent and self-loving and solitary, and that’s part of what makes it feel different and good.
A: That’s all well and good, and I don’t object to food-and-sex comparisons, but I hope the letter writer doesn’t feel as if it’s incumbent on her to justify the practice of masturbation to her partner. It would be great if he could come to understand that particular sort of solitary pleasure as meaningful and worthwhile—but even if he doesn’t, everyone has a right to nonspecific private time, to unwind in whatever way they see fit.
Q. Re: Stimulus check drama: Unless your friends are contributing to your household income, they do not have any right to tell you how to spend your money, whether stimulus or regular income. Put it in the bank. You will help stimulate the economy when you select a home. Guilt-free.
A: I’ve seen a few answers along the same lines; for what it’s worth, I think the letter writer is well aware that their friends can’t dictate how they spend their money. It seemed more like they were wondering just how seriously to incorporate their friends’ advice and less like they were in danger of allowing their friends to collectively take over their checkbook. The letter writer certainly shouldn’t let their friends hound them on the subject, and they can absolutely maintain their right to make their own financial decisions. But given that this one-time check is not going to be the single defining payment that makes homeownership possible for them, I think there’s room to split the difference and do a bit of both saving and donating.
Q. Re: Passive job hunting (April 27): Where unemployment compensation comes from: A letter writer commented that “Unemployment is being paid by taxpayer dollars.” This is incorrect. Unemployment compensation is funded by employers. Companies are taxed by their state (SUTA) and the federal government (FUTA) at rates based on how many employees they lay off. So my taxes and your taxes are not paying for anyone’s unemployment. It is an expense that employers are required to pay.
A: Thank you for this correction—that particular letter came in a few weeks ago, but collecting or applying for unemployment benefits is likely to remain relevant to the column for a while yet, so it’s a helpful note.
Q. My husband’s spent our entire marriage writing a screenplay: My husband and I have been married for six years and together for 10. He was a creative director with a good income when we got engaged but once we got married we decided he would work on finishing his movie script. He hasn’t worked since and the script has little chance of ever making money. I was diagnosed with infertility five years ago and we have not had success with treatment or private adoption. I have my master’s degree and a good job. But with one income, and living in a high cost area, we are always struggling and can’t even afford health insurance. I love my husband, he understands me and encourages me to be creative, fun, inspired, and authentic. I married him because he is fearless in his artistry and living with him makes me feel as if everything is ahead of us. However, I have considered leaving him for all the obvious reasons: his having no real work ethic and my feeling used. Recently things were terrible at work because of a merger, and I was coming home crying. To my shock my husband suggested he put the script away, we move out of state to be near his family where the cost of living is lower, he find a job, and we could adopt. I was thrilled! We started looking, and I have been offered a good job with fewer hours, great benefits, but significantly less pay. He hasn’t found anything although he’s not looking hard. Then things calmed down at my current job and I may have an opportunity for exciting advancement. I have to accept or deny the job offer very soon and I don’t know what to 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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