Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hi, everyone! Let’s set some houses in order.
Q. Can a teacher be on Grindr? I am a 32-year-old single gay man who will be starting a doctoral program in the fall, during which I will be teaching. The university is in a conservative state but near a progressive city. As a single gay man, I use a variety of apps to find dates and companionship. I use Tinder and Hinge for dating, and Grindr and Scruff for hookups. I am a fairly sex-positive person, so I have pictures of my face on all the apps that I use. Further, none of the pictures or profiles would be things I would be embarrassed of other people—professional or otherwise—finding. As a teacher, I don’t have a problem with a student finding me on Tinder or Hinge. I set my age range well above the average college student, and if they want to giggle at their single teacher using a dating app, that’s fine.
What I am wondering about are Grinder and Scruff. Both these apps use location software and both have a pretty deserved reputation for being hookup apps. The possibility of a student opening up their app in class and seeing me on there feels odd both for the student’s ability to feel safe and focus in my class, and the potential for a student trying to mess with me. I don’t really want to spend the next four years of my life celibate, but I am going to prioritize completing my program. Do I need to delete those apps? Or become a blank/headless profile?
A: I’m happy to run additional responses from teachers/grad students/professors with relevant experience, so feel free to chime in. You say your state’s conservative but your city’s relatively progressive, and I wonder if you have any sense of what your university administration’s outlook is—do they have any relevant policies or case studies you can use to guide your choices? I mention that merely as a strategic and protective move; I agree that a single 32-year-old grad student who wants to use dating and hookup apps to meet other adults who aren’t his students isn’t doing anything wrong, and don’t want to make you feel overly responsible for a hypothetical student opening Grindr in class and then judging your presence on Grindr too. But grad students are often precariously employed, and your nervousness makes sense in that context.
If you’re comfortable keeping your Tinder and Hinge profiles up, do; you can also mention that you’re interested in both dating and hookups on those apps, if you want to try to make up for the temporary or contingent loss of Grindr and Scruff. Plenty of people are interested in casual sex on those apps, too, although the pool of possible hookups may be smaller there. You can also turn off location sharing in your general settings when you’re teaching or otherwise on campus, then only turn it back on when you’re back at home and actively looking for someone. Going (temporarily) headless might relieve some of your anxiety, too; you can always mention in your profile that you’re happy to send face pics after you’ve matched with someone. Again, that may cut down on some responses if a lot of guys are just looking to maximize convenience, but it’s not an insurmountable barrier.
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Q. I hate my husband’s big romantic gestures! My husband never misses a birthday, holiday, or other special occasion. He buys me flowers, writes cards, sends chocolates; he loves to talk to others about how proud he is of me, how smart and talented I am, and how lucky he is.
The problem is, I hate it because in our private life, he’s controlling and for most of our life together, has put his needs and wants ahead of mine. We’re in therapy, and he’s improved. But holidays like Valentine’s Day make me miserable because he goes all out on ostentatious displays, when what I really want is for him to be more respectful and kind when we’re not in public. Meanwhile, our kids and everyone else think he’s wonderful and I’m just unappreciative. Is there something I can say when everyone tells me how lucky I am, or do I have to just smile through it?
A: You definitely do not have to just smile through what sounds like a miserable marriage. I don’t think you should turn to casual acquaintances, co-workers, or your children for primary support, but you should absolutely clue in your close friends and family. This isn’t a situation where things are mostly fine except for one or two minor inconsistencies: You say that “for most of [y]our life together” your husband has put his needs and wants ahead of yours, that he’s controlling, and then makes a show of being an adoring partner on Valentine’s Day in a way that highlights your sense of isolation. You say he’s “improved” after attending therapy, but it doesn’t seem as if that improvement has lasted years or been so remarkable that it’s begun to heal the past. You say you want him to be “more respectful and kind” when you’re alone together, which is an absolutely heartbreaking desire, and I hope you can tell people who care about you just how much is missing from your marriage when you don’t have an audience.
You don’t mention, I realize, that you’ve considered leaving your husband, but I’d like to plant the suggestion. This dynamic seems to be as old as your relationship, and you deserve so much better than having to ask your partner to treat you with respect; that should be a given and a baseline in any relationship. You do not have to pretend to be lucky, you do not have to pretend to enjoy negotiating for basic kindness, and you do not have to pretend that you have a good husband.
Q. Sibling wars: I have four kids who are all very different. My oldest daughter is 27 and went to an Ivy League college, has a great high-paying job, and lives in a beautiful apartment in a big city. My 24-year-old daughter is the guitarist in a very successful band that just got another record deal with a huge label. My 17-year-old son plays several varsity sports, is being scouted by top colleges, and is a straight-A student.
And then my middle daughter, “Anne,” is 21, married with three kids, and works in retail. Anne never really expressed any desire to go to college or anything like that—she always wanted to be a homemaker and have a family. My husband and I always encouraged her but never pushed her to do anything she didn’t want to do. We’re a high-achieving family but all we really wanted was for our kids to be happy no matter what. I always thought she was pretty happy, but she’s recently confided in me that she felt left behind by her siblings and that they always made her feel like they thought they were better than her. I was surprised to hear this because I’ve always been on the lookout for anything like that but truly have not ever heard my other kids shame Anne. But now I feel like I haven’t looked hard enough.
I try to always tell Anne how proud I am of her, but I think sometimes it falls flat. We love her and our grandkids (our other kids have all expressed that they do not want to have children). When our musician daughter held a family Zoom call to tell us about her record deal, our oldest daughter shared details about her job promotion and my son told his sisters about his latest college acceptance. Anne started to cry and abruptly left the call. Anne now tells me that she wants me to tell the other kids to stop sharing their accomplishments with her. How can I best support all of my kids without tearing apart the family?
A: This is a wonderful opportunity to respectfully and compassionately acknowledge your daughter’s feelings without treating them as universally true or foundational. You can give these feelings a seat in the car, so to speak, without handing them the keys and letting them drive. “I feel really self-conscious about my siblings’ accomplishments and worry that they look down on me” is a perfectly understandable anxiety. “I want my mother to manage my relationships with my other adult siblings by telling them to downplay or censor what’s going on in their lives for my benefit” is not a perfectly understandable reaction to that anxiety.
Graciously decline to carry out Anne’s request. “Darling, I love you, and I want to make sure you always know how proud I am of you, and how much room you have to discuss your fears and anxieties with me. If any of your siblings have ignored you, or said something that hurts your feelings, you need to talk to them directly, because only you can direct your relationships with one another as adults. If you want them to ask you more about your life, then you should ask them to; if you want to share something vulnerable with them and ask them to help reassure and affirm you, then you should do that, too. But that’s not a conversation I’m going to have on your behalf, although I’m available to help you plan out what you want to say, if you’d like my advice and support. And I don’t think telling the others to stop talking about their own lives is going to address whatever is causing you pain right now. That’s not the answer.”
Q. Cops are scary to me: My girlfriend is a white-passing Latina, and I am a Black woman. Last week, she and I were pulled over by the cops for an expired registration. When the cops got to the car, they took her information and started talking to us. I became so nervous I began to cry. She got irritated and turned to me when he took her ID to run it in his car and said, “You’re making me nervous! Stop that!” I willed myself to stop crying, but when the cop came back, she started arguing with him over the ticket. She started getting louder. I could see him getting agitated, so I lightly poked her and whispered, “Let it go, please.” She did and just took it and said, “I guess I’ll just take this ticket that makes no fucking sense to me.” When we left, she said it was my fault she didn’t have her questions answered and now she had to pay a ticket she didn’t understand.
I don’t know what to do. Should I pay for it since I did ask her to stop? I know she has a right to understand her ticket. Please help.
A: I’m so sorry for your initial distress—which makes perfect sense to me—and for your girlfriend’s dismissive, bewildering response, which could have seriously endangered you both. You say she was pulled over for an expired registration, so I’m not sure her argument that she didn’t “understand” her ticket holds water—based on what you’ve described here, it seems like she understood it perfectly well but wanted to keep arguing until she didn’t have to take it. She was wrong to blame you for asking her to deescalate, and I don’t think you should buy her assertion that she was simply “asking questions” or that you unreasonably interrupted an otherwise rational exchange of information. Please do not feel that you owe her money simply because she was angry with you, or has attempted to put the blame on you. You don’t. You have every right to be concerned and angry with how she treated you. Your fear was reasonable and well-founded, and she not only treated you with contempt but played fast and loose with your personal safety. You deserve better.
Q. Am I wrong for being upset? My partner recently started therapy, and within four sessions went from actively conspiring with my BFFs to plan a surprise proposal and looking for donors so we could try to get pregnant (he is female-to-male, I am a cis woman) to not wanting kids anymore and then breaking up with me to “work through his trauma.” He said that he feels that I “wouldn’t handle what he’s about to go through” well, and as such, has taken the choice from me altogether. But he hasn’t given me the chance to be supportive. We also still live together because financially, neither of us is in a place to move (we just signed the lease in December), so not being a couple means little right now, as I’ll still be around and thus will still have to “handle” whatever he’s going through.
Am I wrong to question what might be going on in his therapy sessions? Whenever I have started therapy, the first thing my therapists have said is “don’t go making major life decisions while we are this early in the process except in cases of physical or mental abuse.” Yet that’s exactly what he’s doing. There is no abuse (on either side); we both openly admit this is the best relationship either of us has had, and he says he’s still in love with me … so am I wrong to feel like something is off here? The relationship issues are not the only major choices: He tried to enlist in the Army and is talking about quitting his job, too!
A: You’re certainly allowed to feel upset. You’re allowed to have whatever feelings you want to have about being dumped. To that end, you’re free to consider this dumping premature or insufficiently thought-out, and to strongly dislike how your ex-boyfriend handled it. But there is no real rule that prohibits people from making significant decisions early on in therapy, and just because your therapists have announced arbitrary rules like “Unless you’re being abused, don’t do anything major [who decides what constitutes “major”?] while we’re this early [who decides what constitutes “this early”?] in the process” doesn’t mean that all decisions made in the first four weeks of a new therapeutic relationship are therefore suspect, or that you can demand a recount.
You’re right that when someone breaks up with you, they don’t give you the choice to decide whether you would like to be dumped. But that’s the whole point, I’m afraid, of dumping someone. It can be painful, frustrating, and bewildering, and you don’t have to like it, but you also don’t get to vote on it, and it won’t do you much good to try to argue with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anymore, no matter how solid you believe your case is. Whether he only lately realized he doesn’t want to have children, or whether he’s suspected it for a long time and withheld the information out of shame or ambiguity or a hope that he’d change his mind, the result is the same. Perhaps he’s telling you he still loves you and that this was the best relationship he’s ever had because he feels guilty and doesn’t want to exacerbate your anger when you two have another 10 months on a lease together. Perhaps he’s telling you he still loves you and that this was the best relationship he’s ever had because it’s true, but he still doesn’t want to stay together with you anymore. Either way, you know that he does not find that love, or the nature of your relationship, to be sufficient reasons for staying together. Whether he ends up quitting his job or joining the Army, it seems clear that he’s not interested in continuity, and would not be a reliable partner even if you could somehow argue him into taking back the breakup.
Being curious about what’s been going on during these therapy sessions is understandable, but don’t assume that therapy was the sole cause of his decision to end your relationship. Whatever conversations you two end up having about the end of your relationship, or the nature of your nonromantic living arrangement for the next year, you should feel free to speak candidly and seek to understand more where you can—but don’t assume that you’re going to discover an explanation for this breakup so persuasive that you finally agree that your ex made the right choice, or that you’ll be able to poke enough “holes” in his arguments that he’ll say, “You know, that’s a great point; I did end things too precipitously, let’s get back together.” You’re in a really painful and stressful situation, and I’m so sorry you have to keep living together for the foreseeable future. Take space where you can, vent to your friends and reach out for support elsewhere, and good luck.
Q. His ex’s Instagram profile: They broke up four years ago. I’ve asked my boyfriend to ask her to change her romantic profile picture of the two of them together (they are on friendly terms). She has not done so, and I’m not sure that he has asked her to do it yet. It makes me very uncomfortable. Do you think this is inappropriate? What should I do?
A: It certainly strikes me as odd! If you’ve asked him to speak with her about it, and you’re not sure whether he has, then the obvious next move would be to ask whether he has, and if he hasn’t, when he’s planning to do it. It might be a slightly stilted conversation, but it’s not insurmountably bizarre, and he should be cheerfully ready to ask her to choose a new profile picture in a timely fashion.
Q. BFF keeps gifting me trash: I’ve been best friends with the same person since we were toddlers. I love her dearly and am grateful for our friendship, but I feel increasing resentment about her gift-giving habits. I am not sure if I should approach it with her or just keep letting it slide. We traditionally exchange gifts for birthdays and Christmas. She gives me boxes of half-used cosmetics and lotions—basically whatever she finds in her bathroom that she doesn’t want or use anymore. Otherwise she gives me things that have clearly been regifted: rewrapped picture frames or those prepackaged cosmetic gift sets they sell at drug stores. On one occasion, her dad very enthusiastically commented on what a good gift-giver she is as I was unwrapping something of this sort, which felt like adding insult to injury. I know the issue isn’t financial, and she’s the one who always makes a point of scheduling a gift exchange.
Frankly, it really hurts my feelings. I always put a great deal of thought into what to give her and spend the money to buy her nice things; she’s my best friend, after all. In return, she gives me garbage. I don’t want to hurt her feelings by saying I don’t like them because maybe she genuinely thinks I do, but I’ve seen what she gives other people and it seems like this is something she only does with me. Should I suggest we not exchange gifts anymore?
A: If she’s a lousy gift giver but otherwise a supportive and caring friend, and you only have to deal with old lotion bottles twice a year, I’d encourage you first to ask if it’s possible to let some of this go. You might find this dynamic less insulting if you scaled back on how much time and money you spent on her gifts, too. That’s not to say you should start getting her lousy gifts on purpose in the hopes that she’ll feel guilty—not at all—but if you can see your way through to saying, “Recalcitron’s an amazing friend, but a lousy gift giver. We all have our faults, and I’m going to get her a cute mug for Christmas this year instead of driving myself nuts making her a quilt,” I think you should give that a shot.
Q. Re: Can a teacher be on Grindr? I am also a gay (though, lesbian) Ph.D. student living in a conservative state who uses dating apps. I would also worry about using a location-specific app for the reasons you mention, because of the increased likelihood that I would face social consequences for being recognized. I make no effort to hide that I am queer, but students are absolutely more prone to sexualize LGBT teachers and I am nervous that being recognized on a dating app escalates this tendency. Do I want to potentially be sexually harassed in my classroom while teaching? (This has happened.) Do I want comments on my sexual orientation showing up on teaching evaluations, which I may need to submit as part of my teaching portfolio for job applications? (This has also happened.) These are also things to consider when making this decision.
A: I’m grateful you shared this experience, but I’m also sorry that you have to take such considerations in mind. I don’t want to share this in a spirit of maximal closetedness—“Always assume you can get in trouble for being gay and having a sex life and you should fully lock down just to be on the safe side”—but as a reminder to protect yourself when you think it necessary.
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Q. Keeping it in the family: I am a widower in my mid-30s. Five years ago a drunk driver killed my wife. I was devastated. For the first couple of years I was in a sad, isolated, and withdrawn state. But the passage of time did help heal me. My wife’s younger sister moved to my city to begin her medical residency more than two years ago. She invited me to a few social events when she arrived and soon we became physically intimate. At first I was in shock, as she had been my sister-in-law. However, things developed and it is serious. There’s a problem, however: She’s never told her parents about us. I understand the topic is awkward and her parents and I have had a strained relationship. But she and I are planning to move in together and will be getting engaged, so it’s only a matter of time before they find out. We’ve discussed breaking the news to them thousands of times, and even sought professional advice. Each rehearsal scenario inevitably ends with us having to defend our relationship, something we both don’t feel is necessary. Are we right for believing that we shouldn’t justify ourselves to her family and those who view our relationship as suspect or immoral? Or do they have a point that we’ve crossed a huge social boundary between brother-in-law and sister-in-law and we must hear them out?
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.