Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. This week’s live chat had technical difficulties, but Danny Lavery still answered questions that were sent in. Here’s an edited transcript.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon, everyone! I’m taking on your problems today with a broken pinky toe, the most ridiculous bone it is possible to break, so please bear that in mind when you consider taking my advice.
Q. Messy Prince Charming: I have a wonderful boyfriend. We have been dating for about a year and a half, we are serious about our future, and we are excited to move in together in a few months. My only issue is that he is a bit of a slob. It’s as if he doesn’t even notice the mess around him or just doesn’t care enough to clean up after himself. He often spills food on or around him and mostly leaves it to dry; crumbs litter the counters and floors; hair covers the sink after a shave despite his saying he cleaned up; all the cabinet and closet doors are consistently left wide open; and mold occasionally appears in his sink. He once identified with a study we heard on the radio that said that intelligent people are often clumsier because their minds are distracted, but I don’t think that excuses someone from then cleaning up after himself.
To be clear, I am no neat freak—and I am in no way asking him to scrub a toilet. We intend to keep up with a cleaning service (monthly, more frequently?), but I refuse to live in a house where food is stuck on to the coffee table, the dishwasher remains full, the bathroom is littered with hair, and all the cabinets and doors are always left wide open in between cleanings. I hate walking into a room and knowing, with precision, exactly what he has just done there by following the trail of mess. What do I do? I have tried to address this and I don’t want to nag, but I am anxious about our future cohabitation and don’t want to set myself up for a lifetime of cleaning up.
A: This is a real concern! Let’s start by striving to describe your situation as accurately as possible, not because I think you should dump your boyfriend tomorrow over it, but because you’ll stand a better chance of making real progress or finding meaningful compromises if you’re realistic and honest about the scale of things, rather than trying to downplay or minimize it. He’s not “a bit of a slob.” He’s very, very messy, and at present he’s more interested in finding ways to describe his internal relationship to mess/distraction than he is in changing his habits, seeking support, or reevaluating his coping strategies. For your part, you seem very concerned about looking like a “nag,” and are preemptively negotiating against yourself by assuring him you don’t want him to change very much. I wonder why you are “in no way asking him to scrub a toilet”? Cleaning one’s own toilet is a perfectly ordinary and reasonable task, and while it might not be anyone’s favorite chore, all the necessary tools to do so cleanly and quickly (gloves, cleaning solution, toilet brush, etc.) are available at almost any pharmacy or midsize grocery store. If you can afford to hire a cleaning service, that might go a long way toward minimizing conflict, but what if you can’t always afford such a service? And what about the minor, everyday messes that you don’t want to leave for a professional cleaner who isn’t coming for another two weeks?
If you’ve tried to address this and haven’t gotten anywhere, pay attention to the part of yourself that feels anxious at the prospect of living together. I think you’re quite right to fear that if you move in with him, you will be constantly overwhelmed by his mess, that he will continue to resist cleaning up after himself, and that you will often find your only available options are to clean up for him, nag or beg him to change, or hire a cleaner yourself. (And, of course, I think it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll have to take on the lion’s share of coordinating with the cleaner, cleaning up before the cleaning service gets there because you’re embarrassed about the state of your home, answering questions the cleaner may have about where you keep your cleaning supplies or which room they should start in, etc.) Take this seriously, and reconsider whether you’re ready to move in together in a few months when he’s so far displayed no interest in changing something that seriously distresses you.
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Q. How to talk about racial equity: I work at an organization that, while not social justice–oriented in mission, has taken on racial equity work as a large part of its future. Everyone is excited about this direction, and we’re all working very hard to advance our goals in what ways we can, as we look for the official equity consultant who will help us develop a concrete five-year plan. Given the nature of these conversations, some of the planning meetings involve a lot of tension—particularly around discussions of money (always an issue at a nonprofit), and how best to allocate our limited resources both to achieve our equity goals while continuing to achieve the mission-oriented goals that have a broader scope.
Is it possible to be a white ally if I disagree with a person of color in my company in regard to how to approach equity from a business standpoint? I don’t want to have this disagreement seen as a personal attack on that person’s humanity, race, qualifications, or the moral weight of the work itself (something everyone in the organization wholeheartedly agrees on). Obviously, there’s no way to take personal feelings out of a subject this loaded, and discomfort is a given throughout this process.
A: I’m a little concerned that you haven’t yet hired an equity consultant, but your first (and seemingly only) concern is how often you’re going to be disagreeing with them. Already you seem to have framed the dynamic in a way that seems designed to ensure your equity consultant will fail: “We’ll of course disagree with their recommendations because they’re impractical and in conflict with our original goals. They’ll take any such disagreement personally and will have trouble taking their ‘personal feelings’ out of the equation. We’ll ask them to come up with a ‘concrete five-year-plan’ that we won’t actually back up with a reallocated budget or anything tangible, and I need to make sure in advance they don’t think we’re racist for asking them to do something and then making it difficult-to-impossible for them to get something done.”
I’d encourage you to reconsider your question. “Is it possible to be a white ally if I disagree with a person of color in my company in regard to how to approach equity from a business standpoint?” is vague to the point of being counterproductive. A white ally to what cause, to what group(s) of people, to what end? Without a clear sense of what you want to ally yourself with, this comes across more of a desire to be perceived as “one of the good white people” by any people of color you come into contact with, rather than supporting a specific cause or set of interests. It’s certainly possible to disagree with a person of color at work for nonracist reasons (although if your company is predominantly white, such disagreements will still take place in a mostly white context, and your intentions won’t cancel that out). But that’s not quite what you’re proposing here. You’re proposing hiring an equity officer you don’t plan on meaningfully supporting, whose suggestions you believe will prove impractical and impossible to carry out, and whose hypothetical emotional reaction to being undercut you want to control in advance. It’s a recipe for failure, and I hope you and the rest of your team reconsider your approach.
Q. Vanishing cousin: I’m recently shocked by the behavior of my cousin “Amy” and need advice on whether to reach out to her. The two of us were close growing up as the only two girls of similar ages in our extended family. Understandably, she grew more distant when we both went to college and we weren’t living down the street from one another anymore, but we always reconnected and got on well at family events.
Last year she completed college—which her parents paid for—and then cut the entire family off. We all found that she’d changed her number, email address, disappeared from Facebook, etc. She sent her parents one last appalling email telling them that she was “done trying to make things work with the family,” called them homophobic bigots, and even implied they were abusive because they once responded badly to her short haircut. I really want to be sympathetic to her, but I’m honestly struggling to reconcile her actions with the kindhearted, loving person I knew. My aunt and uncle have been absolutely devastated since; they showed my parents and me the email to try to get some understanding of it and where it had come from, but we all came up blank. It really looks like Amy waited until they had finished paying for her college to cut them off, which I don’t think speaks very well of her and seems mercurial.
The thing is, I’ve recently found Amy again on Facebook. She has made a new account under her married name—from the photos I could see, she and her wife got married in secret not long after she sent that awful email to her parents. I was surprised when she accepted my friend request, and I’m hesitating about sending her a message. It really hurt me that she seemed happy to cut me off along with everyone else when to my memory we had no fallout, and I would want to ask her why she did that. I would also want to ask what she meant about some of the things she mentioned in her email to my aunt and uncle—I’ve never seen any evidence that they’re homophobic, but I am straight, so am now wondering if there was a lot I missed—but don’t know if this would be overstepping as that email was not even addressed to me. I know you’ve advised a lot of people considering estrangement from family, so I’m wondering if you can offer me perspective from the other side of this. Amy has hurt me, but how should I compassionately proceed reaching out to her, if I should message her at all?
A: I’m glad to hear that you don’t plan on announcing you’ve found Amy’s profile to the rest of the family, as that would clearly contravene her wishes and almost certainly torpedo any possibility of a relationship between the two of you. Lean into the part of you that suspects there was “a lot” you may have missed when it comes to your aunt and uncle’s homophobia, and don’t presume that you know what it was like to live with her parents on a daily basis as a gay person on the strength of how well you got along with her at family get-togethers. It’s not surprising that you haven’t personally seen evidence of your aunt and uncle’s homophobia, given that you’re straight and their niece, rather than gay and their daughter. She had a front-row seat and skin in the game, so to speak; you saw them mostly in group settings and from time to time.
Without assuming that Amy has handled everything perfectly, and leaving open the very real possibility that she has painted you unfairly with the same brush she used for her parents, I think you should reconsider some of your conclusions. You say you don’t think it speaks well of Amy that she waited until she graduated college to tell her parents that their homophobia had irreparably damaged their relationship with her—I think it doesn’t speak well of her parents that Amy believed they might withhold her tuition and put her education at risk if she spoke honestly with them about their homophobia. It also doesn’t speak well of your aunt and uncle that, rather than attempt to honestly take stock of their treatment of Amy over the years, they turned to their niece and adult siblings—who didn’t live with them or Amy, and who won’t be able to shed much light on where they might have gone wrong, to make sense of their new situation.
If you do want to reach out to Amy and tell her you miss her, I think you have grounds to do so, although if you’re planning on arguing on your aunt and uncle’s behalf, I think you should hold off. Ask yourself if you’re interested in or prepared to have a relationship with Amy that does not involve relitigating her decision not to speak to her parents. If the answer is no, then leave her alone. I can’t help but notice that, aside from saying you’ve never noticed any homophobia in your extended family, you don’t have much to say about what you yourself think of gay people. In the context of a homophobic family, if you’ve never said anything affirming or positive about gay people to Amy, it would have been reasonable for her to assume you felt the same way as her parents. That’s a possible clue as to why you haven’t noticed a “falling out” between you two, while she has. Be prepared to reexamine a lot of assumptions if you do reach out to Amy, and try to do so without becoming defensive. If you don’t think you can, better to leave Amy and her new wife alone and in peace.
Q. Only an office: I did some remodeling and folded in the studio apartment connected to my house. The room has a half-bath and a good deal of working space with a private entry. I have been renting the space out as an office/study space during the pandemic. It has been pretty much booked 24/7 since last March. Everyone has a schedule where their hours are written down and they get a 15-minute window to clean up and clear out.
“Maggie” is a client. She is dating a woman with kids and has brought them to the house when their child care fell through. I have found these kids three times in spaces where they shouldn’t be—pulling up my flowers in my garden, teasing my dog, and once in my house proper because I forgot to lock the door. I came down from a nap to find a 6-year-old and 4-year-old watching TV in my living room and eating my food. They told me that their Mama Maggie told them to be good, so they were quiet. I told Maggie this was unacceptable and that she had until the end of the month to find another space.
Maggie has been relentless in trying to get me to reconsider. She lives in a studio with her girlfriend and her kids. If she works remotely, she needs a space; Starbucks will not let her stay for eight hours. I am sympathetic to a point, but I am not running a day care and would be legally liable if something happened to these kids. I know Maggie is very stressed and might be in danger of losing her job. I do like her. She is nice and tidy and can do better romantically in my opinion, but this is still my home in the end. I don’t want to screw anyone over but I am not going to get screwed in the process.
A: I’ll focus just on the question at hand rather than try to wade into the relative safety of renting out the same indoor space to multiple people during a pandemic for now. It’s reasonable to tell Maggie that you can’t accommodate children in a work studio, and ending her ad hoc rental agreement after multiple violations is reasonable too; she’s in a difficult position herself, but you’re not able to fix it on her behalf. If you’re feeling guilty because of how much stress she’s under, and your studio’s been booked 24/7 since March, maybe you could give her back the money she’s paid you so she can try to rent another workspace elsewhere. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s much you can do. I think you’re right to worry about liability when there are little kids regularly wandering around your property and teasing your dog, and I don’t think you can reasonably expect Maggie will leave the kids at home, given her track record. Give her some money if you can afford it, and leave her to tackle her own problems herself.
Q. Increasingly messy husband: My husband of 26 years has been working from home since March. While he’s never been neat (he’s a borderline slob, honestly), the longer he works from home, the more pronounced his slovenly habits have become. I’m no neat freak and have long accepted that this is his natural state of being, but his behavior is causing me increasing stress and resentment. Mentioning it lovingly results in an improvement of about one day before it’s back to business as usual. Coming home from work to see dirty dishes and clothing strewn around is starting to irritate me to the point of getting nasty, but I know that’s the wrong approach. Is there anything I can do? (Aside from hiring daily housekeeping, which is out.)
A: I hope the “Messy Prince Charming” letter writer is able to see this one! For what it’s worth, whenever I get a letter like this one, the writer almost always hurries to assure me they are not a “neat freak,” and the impression I get is that they’ve spent a long time trying to pare down their expectations to the bare minimum lest they get accused of being a neat freak. I realize different couples/individuals can have a variety of relationships to mess, and that there’s no single universal standard for what constitutes a comfortably, reasonably clean home. I also know that even generally tidy people can go through painful or stressful times where they let the dishes pile up or the laundry go unattended, and that it’s not the end of the world.
The good news is that there are plenty of options in between “mentioning it lovingly” on an ad hoc basis and “getting nasty.” Have a big-picture conversation with your husband: “I know that when I mention your messiness is getting out of hand, you usually respond cheerfully, but it only lasts for about a day, and then it stops. That’s not working for me. I don’t want to have to keep repeating myself, and I don’t want to be the only person who anticipates or notices the state of the house.” Ask him to talk to you about what he thinks are reasonable rules around dirty laundry/dishes/leaving things on the floor. Make it clear that disagreement is fine, but “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer, and he needs to join you in the mental/imaginative work of envisioning a shared sense of what housework you two should be doing together and separately on a regular basis. You two can negotiate, and neither of you might get exactly what you want, but you should insist on his full participation in the conversation. You both live in this house together, and you both have a shared stake in making sure it’s reasonably livable and pleasant, especially when you’re spending almost all your time indoors. Good luck!
Q. Update: Not a communist: Hi, this is an update to the letter posted about my sister-in-law who thinks I’m a communist. One point of clarification: It was HER mother that she discussed conspiracy theories with, not my mother. My mom is conservative for sure but is (mostly) rational. (My brother is actually a “secret” liberal, but that’s a whole ’nother story.)
I had written initially before Christmas and it was not certain I would be included in the family gathering as my brother and sister-in-law were hosting because of the baby. My parents would have visited with me separately. However, I was invited and joined my family (immediate only, after appropriate isolation) on Christmas. My sister-in-law was perfectly polite, if a bit standoffish. I’ve seen them twice since then (short, outside visits) and again, she has been civil. She has even rejoined the family group text.
I’m taking this as a very tentative win but am staying cautious. She has always been one to spout whatever she has seen on Facebook or Fox News to be shocking or to try to start something. In the past when this happened, I’ve simply and calmly asked questions or pointed out something she might not have thought about, and she seems to consider what I’m saying, at least in the moment. I will continue to respond to her in this manner.
A: Thanks for that clarification! It is not the first time (nor, I fear, the last) that I’ve mixed up a mother for a mother-in-law, although I’m glad to hear that at least you don’t have to worry about sabotage from your side of the family. I’m glad you’ve been able to establish a tentative peace for the sake of the baby and think cautiously picking your battles/asking open-ended questions are the best moves available to you right now. (Certainly better than being a “secret” liberal in a way that’s apparently so secret your own wife doesn’t know about it.) Thanks for the update, and good luck!
Q. Neighbor thinks I’m too noisy in the bedroom: I’m a gay man living in a conservative suburb of a relatively small city. Several years ago I bought a townhouse and though I don’t socialize with the neighbors, I like living here very much. Two months ago a new family moved into the unit next to mine. At first, they seemed friendly enough—their son, about 4, was a little noisy but that’s life. About two weeks ago, the mom approached me while I was getting into my car and asked for a word with me. She said that their son’s bedroom was on the wall next to mine, and he could very obviously hear me having sex a few nights prior. I was shocked (it’s not like we were particularly loud) and mortified and said I’d try to keep things quieter. She told me that she thinks it’s for the best if I move my bedroom, or have sex somewhere else, just in case her son hears. I refused but said I would definitely try to be quieter.
So last weekend my boyfriend was over, and we ended up having sex sometime in the afternoon. While we’re going at it there was a knock on the door—of course we ignored it, but the knocking continued.
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.