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. Cheating with an added surprise: A couple of months ago, I met a girl on a dating app. Our relationship was going well and we really connected emotionally. But sexually, I felt like things could have been better. I found a good-looking woman who seemed slightly older than me on Tinder. We met up and got intimate a few times. One day, she told me she was married. I was shocked, but I realized I was not morally much better, since I was in a relationship, too. She then told me she had a child and showed me a picture of her daughter. To my surprise, her daughter was my girlfriend, the one I was cheating on. I came up with an excuse and immediately left.
I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to ruin my relationship, and it seems like that’s what might happen if I tell her the truth. On the other hand, if I don’t tell her now, the truth might come out eventually, as it was her mother I cheated with. Should I tell her? Should I break up with her? What’s the right thing to do for me, for her, for her mother, and for our relationship?
A: I’m not quite sure where you’re getting the idea that the truth “might come out eventually.” Let’s go ahead and adjust that to “will, definitely,” and act accordingly. There’s no coming back from this one, your relationship is already ruined, break up with your girlfriend, watch The Graduate, and change your life.
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Q. COVID vaccine ethics: My local pharmacy recently received a supply of the COVID vaccine. My wife and I have preexisting conditions that make us eligible to get it. We have two children in middle school and have been very strict about quarantine. We are regular customers of the pharmacy, well-known to the owner and staff.
My sister is not and sent in forms for our parents and stepfather. We were called with an appointment; no one else from our family has been called. There is some anger coming from my sister. Should I have turned down the vaccine until my older relatives were taken care of? I feel like I need to prioritize my health so that I can be here for my children, and yet I am feeling some guilt.
A: If it was possible to give away your appointment to your elderly relatives, that might be a question worth mulling over, but I don’t know if your pharmacy offers such opportunities—that would strike me as unusual! I imagine either you could accept your appointment or turn it down, in which case the pharmacy staff would make their own decision about who to call next—but either way, you wouldn’t have been able to make your parents get their jabs any sooner.
I can understand your sister’s frustration over having to watch your parents wait to receive a life-changing vaccine, but I don’t think you’re responsible for the slowness of the rollout, nor should you avoid getting the vaccine simply because it’s not as widely available as would be ideal. Get vaccinated when you can, continue to prioritize your own health, and offer to be useful to your sister in other ways—maybe you can help her with some of the paperwork or with checking in with the pharmacy staff for updates on your parents’ status, or help her run the occasional errand once you’re fully vaccinated—but don’t give up your spot in line. Your health matters, too!
Q. Our adoption didn’t go through: My husband, “Rick,” and I have tried to adopt for years. For a few days last year, we got to be parents, but our son Andrew’s mother then changed her mind, and we returned him to her. It was devastating for us even though we knew it was a risk. We still love Andrew; I think we always will.
We relied on our families to get the word out after we returned Andrew, but months later we still receive well-meaning inquiries about him. Rick and I are getting better at saying, “The adoption did not work out,” but what’s difficult is the anger people express toward Andrew’s mom. We paid for her medical care and for her to take time off work, and many people—our families included—feel like Andrew’s mom stole from us. They assume she’ll be a bad mother.
Rick and I don’t want to waste time and energy being angry with her. Andrew is her son, and she had every right to not go through with the adoption. It’s been sometimes difficult for us to stave off our own anger, and we don’t have the energy to handle other people’s rage. Our parents especially have a hard time not denigrating her to us. How can we get them to stop when a simple “Please don’t talk to us about this” doesn’t work?
A: I’m very sorry to hear that so many of the people in your life have such an inhumane worldview—if they think paying for this woman’s medical care during her pregnancy entitled you to her child even after she changed her mind about the adoption, that says something very troubling about their values. The idea that they would treat Andrew as an item to be “stolen” because you paid for his mother to take some time off work is cold, transactional, and dehumanizing, especially when you consider the fact that his mother apparently couldn’t afford to take maternity leave to begin with. Of course it’s understandable that you and your husband would have complicated feelings after spending a few days with Andrew, and I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t have a right to feel anger, even as you can also affirm the importance of autonomy and certainty in an adoption. You were deeply invested in being Andrew’s parents, and you have serious cause for grief here. But your friends’ vindictiveness merits a stronger response than a mere “Please don’t talk to us about this.”
I’d suggest something along these lines: “You might think you’re protecting or defending us by getting angry on our behalf. But as painful as not getting to raise Andrew has been, we didn’t buy him by helping his mother with her medical costs, and we knew upfront that she had a legal and ethical right to change her mind until the adoption was finalized—she exercised a right that we all agreed in advance was of serious importance. Adoption is an incredibly personal decision, and we would not have wanted to keep going if we knew she had changed her mind. Of course we still get angry sometimes, and it’s hard enough to deal with our own complicated anger without having to hear our friends say that she’s going to be a bad mother or that she owes us a child because we gave her some money. It’s disrespectful to Rick and me, and the values that inform our approach to adoption, and you need to stop immediately.”
Q. Stealing designs: I recently saw a shirt online that I really liked and thought was funny but wanted to swap out the last few words on the shirt with something else. I looked at the designer’s website, but I didn’t see any variations on the shirt. I’m a graphic designer so I easily found the font and colors that were used and made my own template with the exact wording I wanted. Other than a few changed words, the shirt is exactly the same as the original designer’s. I submitted a template to one of those make-your-own-T-shirt–type sites and had it printed and then deleted the template immediately so no one else could use it or ever see it.
But now whenever I go to wear the shirt, I feel guilty for stealing someone else’s work. Anytime someone asks me about it, I say it was from this designer, but I still feel bad. For what it’s worth, this person is very wealthy and is probably not missing the money I would’ve spent on a T-shirt, but I guess it’s just the principle of it that makes me feel bad. Did I do something wrong?
A: I suppose it would depend on the original slogan—if it was a wholly original, wildly unique phrase that couldn’t possibly have been created by anyone but this specific artist, then your shirt would invariably be a variation on theirs. But if it’s something along the lines of “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee!!!” versions of which exist all over the place, I hardly think you need to berate yourself for plagiarism.
The important thing is that you’re not making money from this, and you’re not claiming that you invented the original expression—it’s just a T-shirt riffing on a saying you thought was funny. If you feel awful every time you wear it, then it’s probably not worth the hassle (and how many times can the same T-shirt joke make you laugh? You’ll inevitably start to experience diminishing returns at some point), but I don’t think you’ve harmed this artist’s career or done anything beyond the pale. (Happy to print comments from other T-shirt designers if there’s an industry standard I’ve failed to consider here!)
Q. Matchmaking friend: My friend “Alice” and I go way back. She married her high school sweetheart, “Ken.” Ken is great, but his friends—not so much. There are no red flags like being drug users or racist, but most of them have skipped a couple of steps in basic social functions.
Alice keeps trying to set me up with them. I have been on dates at an upscale restaurant where the guy showed up in an anime T-shirt and flip-flops, or he orders off the kid’s menu, or has no sense of personal grooming. Most of these men are perfectly nice, but even my 3-year-old nephew has mastered the art of eating with his mouth shut. I have told Alice I wasn’t interested in her matchmaking anymore, but she keeps bringing it up and says I just have to give these guys a “chance.” I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings here. Help me!
A: Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings is a noble goal, but it cannot be your only goal, especially in this situation. You’ve given Alice’s matchmaking attempts more than a fair shot, and it’s perfectly reasonable to tell a friend to stop setting you up on dates. A good friend will say, “Sure thing, thanks for letting me know,” and move on graciously. It’s actually very simple to accept “no” graciously!
Even if she feels upset for whatever reason that you don’t want to date all of her husband’s friends, the polite and caring thing to do is obvious. You’ve got to be firm, and be prepared even to get a little sharp: “Alice, I’ve told you no to more dates already, but you keep bringing it up, which is really frustrating. I’ve given more than my fair share of chances already. But I don’t need you to agree with me on that front. Even if you think I haven’t been open-minded about enough of these guys, you do have to respect my right to decide when and whether I go on a date. You need to drop it.” If that hurts her feelings, then she needs to have her feelings hurt, because she’s acting like an overbearing asshole.
Q. Boyfriend boasts about work: I’ve been with my boyfriend for eight months. He’s up for a big promotion, and I’m having a hard time being happy for his success. Part of the problem is his frequent boasts about the promotion. I’m not sure that’s reasonable; as his partner, I feel like he should be able to talk himself up to me if he wants. But I was aggressively socialized to never boast about my accomplishments, and I find all of this very off-putting. I’m also struggling to feel motivated at work during COVID-19 and overall feeling very “stuck” professionally. He has strong workaholic tendencies, and I am desperate to find meaning beyond work since my life has been reduced to never leaving my apartment and spending hours and hours on Zoom. Is this just jealousy? Is this a deeper values mismatch? How can I get over myself and just be happy for him?
A: Do you actually want to just “get over yourself and be happy” for your boyfriend? Sometimes that’s a worthwhile and necessary goal, but if you’re wondering whether the two of you share core values, and concerned about whether his workaholism will make him a suitable long-term partner for you, I think it’s premature to start thinking about getting over anything. I don’t know what this “aggressive socialization” looked like for you as a child (although the good news is that we are not solely defined as adults by socialization campaigns from childhood), so the question there is whether you think he actually does go on too much about how great he is/doesn’t ask enough questions or show reciprocal interest and support, or whether you think he’s on the right track and you want to emulate his easy, nonanxious ability to take pride in his accomplishments. There’s a big difference between talking a lot about how excited he is about this possibility, how far he’s come, how hard he’s worked for it, and talking a lot about how it’s a done deal, how none of his colleagues could dare come approach his greatness, or generally acting like he’s God’s gift around the clock.
You may very well be jealous of him—frankly, given your respective situations, I’d be surprised if you weren’t—but if you acknowledge your own jealousy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re completely wrong and need to simply shake it off. Does he know how hard a time you’re having at work? Does he seem interested in talking to you about your other options, offering support, or encouraging you to make a career change? If he doesn’t know, what’s holding you back from being honest with him? And if he does know but seems indifferent, and you’ve only been dating for eight months, you may very well decide you don’t want to get any more serious with him. You can’t reasonably expect him to become constantly self-deprecating because of your childhood training, or to act like he’s not excited about his work. He’s not going to be able to solve your dissatisfaction with your own career, so don’t look to him for answers there. But you can reasonably expect that your partner will sometimes ask you about your job, too.
Q. Queer romance: My partner (genderqueer) and I (cis-ish woman) live together and generally have great sex, although I wish we’d have a little more. One thing they’ve identified that would make sex feel more available to them is more romance. Even without a goal of more sex, I’m happy to try, but feel stymied! Neither of us like Valentine’s Day, and they hate receiving flowers, which is fine because I’m really turned off by chocolates, roses, and the lace negligee–style of romance. We also live together and it’s a pandemic. I’m struggling trying to figure out how to think about romance in this context. Any ideas? I’m interested obviously in specific queer pandemic romance ideas, but also if you have thoughts about how to think about romance … queerly.
A: I imagine there are as many different types of queer romance as there are queer people, so I don’t want to offer a once-size-fits-all suggestion. But there are a number of ways to let your partner know that you’re thinking of them, to express devotion, to foster a particular emotion—it just might require a little individual brainstorming first. Your partner doesn’t like getting flowers, and you hate roses and chocolates. That’s perfectly fine. Do you like getting handwritten notes? Do you like writing notes? Do you like having your coffee brought to you in bed every once in a while? Do they feel loved when you plan an outing with their particular tastes and interests in mind (obviously this will be colored by the reality of pandemic living), or when they handle a household chore you find distasteful? What about cooking together, or for each other? Do either of you enjoy occasional time alone? That’s probably in short supply these days; maybe one of you could offer the other full use of the apartment for a few hours and find a way to safely clear out so the other can luxuriate in solitude. Whatever action combines attention, care, labor, and dedication in a way that feels uniquely meaningful to you—however small or infrequent—should go on your list.
Q. Re: Our adoption didn’t go through: First off, please let me say how sorry I am that you have to go through this. You sound like wonderful, mature people and I sincerely hope you will be able to adopt in the future. It sounds to me like your friends and family think providing this proto-revenge fantasy is in some way comforting. But as you say, you care about Andrew, so the idea that he and his caretaker would struggle isn’t a comfort, it is an added fear. So tell them so outright, “We care deeply about Andrew and the idea that he and his mother would struggle is deeply painful to us. Please stop sharing such comments with us as they only make us feel worse.”
A: That’s a very compassionate and succinct response, and probably will be a lot easier for the letter writer to use than my script—thank you so much for this loving alternative.
Q. Re: Stealing design: It’s clear from the letter that letter writer stole an original illustration and then changed the words underneath it. So yes, they are in the wrong.
A: Fair cop! Again, I don’t think it’s an unforgivable crime, but swiping the illustration is a step further than just rewording a slogan. Ditch the T-shirt and go forth to sin no more!
Q. Re: Queer romance: I’m not into Valentine’s Day stuff, either, but massages and mood lighting (candles or, if you’re worried about open flames, string lights—not the blinking kind!) do the trick for me every time.
A: If you start with things you don’t like, pretty soon you’ll eventually hit on something you do, and even if it’s not massages or candlelight for the letter writer, I have a lot of confidence that they’ll have a wealth of options before too long.
Q. My boyfriend didn’t tell me he has an STD—and I want him anyway? My boyfriend and I have been together about four months now, and about a month ago we stopped using condoms (I have an IUD). A few days ago, he told me he had something that he’d been too embarrassed to tell me earlier because he didn’t want me to see him differently and ruin something that was going so well. Turns out that what he needed to tell me was that he’d contracted herpes from an ex-girlfriend a few years before. He’d been taking suppressive medication since we started sleeping together, and hasn’t had an outbreak in over a year—but, naturally, I was more than a little shocked. Honestly, herpes can be dealt with; I’m having a much harder time with the fact that he didn’t come forward with this information when we decided to have unprotected sex. I guess my question is: Is it absurd that I want to stay with him?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.