Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hello, everyone! Just a few more of these together, let’s make it count. (May will be my last month as Dear Prudence—but you’ll still see me around as part of the Slate podcast network, so it’s not all goodbyes around here.)
Q. Post-COVID nose blues: I got COVID last year and lost my sense of smell, what seemed like permanently. I had no sense of smell for more than 11 months, and doctors said they had no idea when, if ever, it would come back because there was significant damage.
Well, the good news is, it seems like my senses are slowly starting to come back. The bad news is, I am having outsized reactions to smells, particularly any kind of smell from my fiancé. He is not a particularly smelly guy, but everyone smells sometimes (morning breath, sweatiness, etc.), and now every time I catch a whiff of any kind of smell from him, it’s a huge turnoff. It’s lessening my attraction to him and I have no idea what to do about it; I absolutely adore him and it would be a stupid “deal-breaker” because every human being produces smells. My nose and brain are just not used to dealing with any kind of scent anymore, and now that they are slowly needing to deal with them again, I don’t know how to switch my default from “everything is scentless” to “humans produce smells and it doesn’t mean that they’re gross and dirty.” Help?
A: I want to open this up for readers: If anyone else has had to deal with a sudden and unsettling reorientation to smells—especially the ordinary day-to-day smells of a partner, whether for COVID-related reasons or not—what helped? What didn’t? Did things ever get back to “normal” or did you have to find a new definition of what normal feels like (and, presumably, smells like)?
As for the letter writer, if you haven’t already broached the subject with your fiancé, I’d encourage you to do so soon—not that I think you should say, “I hate the way you smell now, but I still love you and it makes me feel terrible,” but you can generally clue him in on the fact that your long-term recovery is still an ongoing struggle and you might occasionally ask him to brush his teeth again or reapply deodorant while you readjust.
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Q. Should I tell Mom’s long-held secret to Dad? I recently found out that many years ago, before I was born, my mother cheated on my father, got pregnant, and had an abortion. They are still married, and she never told my dad about any of this. I love my mom and I know this was a long time ago, but I’m really disturbed by the fact that she has been lying to my dad all these years. But I also feel it’s not my secret to tell, and it could really hurt their relationship. Still, I just HATE carrying this secret inside of me and keeping it from my dad. What should I do?
A: You’re quite right that this is not your secret to tell. I can appreciate how complicated it must feel to know something so intimate about your mother, but as a general rule, I want to encourage all letter writers not to out someone else for having had an abortion. If it’s not your abortion, it’s not your disclosure to make. That doesn’t mean you have to feel good about your situation, merely that you’ll need another outlet for your frustration and discomfort besides violating your mother’s privacy. That might mean talking to your mother (it’s not clear how exactly you found out), talking to a therapist, writing in a journal—whatever lessens the stress you’re experiencing. As long as it’s not “talk about someone else’s abortion,” it’s fair game.
Q. Felt like the second choice: I’m in the process of divorcing my wife “Libby” because I’m jealous of her dead husband. I know it doesn’t sound great, but it’s true. Surely that makes divorce the right decision, whether I am right or wrong to feel that way?
So far, everyone else thinks I’m an awful person who’s made a bad choice. I honestly don’t think I am, at the end of the day. I’m not jealous of the life Libby had with her dead husband; I’m jealous of the fact she isn’t over him. She brings up how perfect he was in comparison to me fairly frequently (a much better cook, the garden thrived under his care, he was funnier). When we went on vacation, she told people that the only thing she didn’t enjoy was that she just kept wishing he was there. She wants to name our future daughter, if we were to have one, after his grandmother. She told our therapist he was more adventurous in bed and she missed that. It doesn’t just feel like I’m second-best; it feels like I’m a poor second-best.
It just feels like his absence is this third person in our marriage. When we started talking about having children, I thought it would make me feel more secure, but it just made me feel trapped. So I filed for divorce instead. I guess I’ve already made my decision, but what I want to know is if it’s the wrong decision. Should I be ashamed of myself or try to be better going forward? We went to therapy three times and Libby has refused to go back.
A: I’ve had occasion to chide plenty of letter writers who’ve married widow(er)s and then get bent out of shape if their partner so much as mentions their late spouse, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Perhaps if things were generally more solid between the two of you, suggesting you name a future child after her first husband’s grandmother would have felt less fraught, but I’m not at all surprised you objected to being regularly and negatively compared with him as a cook, a gardener, a conversationalist, a traveling companion, and a lover. I don’t know if you feel as if you exhausted all of your options, and I can’t promise you that you’ll never experience a twinge of regret, since presumably there were also things about your relationship with Libby that made you happy, but your general complaint strikes me as a credible one.
Q. I wish I hadn’t read that: My stepdad, “Alec,” is an amazing guy all around, and I’ve always felt safe around him. However, after a quick Google search, I learned that he was involved in a sexual harassment scandal at his work a few years ago before my parents were together. It was mostly him making inappropriate comments about a colleague (nothing too absolutely awful), but I would’ve never expected it from him, and I was shocked when I read about it.
I honestly don’t know how to move forward. He’s always been a feminist and hasn’t behaved that way around me ever, but I see him through different eyes now, and it worries me. Thankfully I’m an adult and we live in different cities, but how do I address this with myself before the next COVID-safe holiday dinner? I don’t want to feel like Alec is a predator, especially considering the well-being of my teenage stepsisters (who still live with my parents) and my future kids.
A: If you and your stepfather have historically been close, and the basic facts of this harassment case (lawsuit?) are readily publicly available, I think you have grounds to ask him about it so you don’t just let it gnaw away at you until your next Thanksgiving. You can tell him what you’ve told me—that you were surprised to learn about the scandal because you’ve always seen him as a generally respectful person, that it troubled you to hear about it, and that you’re not sure how to square the difference between what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned. But your job is not to “move forward” in the sense of feeling immediately comfortable. You can express care and concern at the same time; asking an uncomfortable question of someone you care about is not the equivalent of demanding, “Prove to me that you’re not a monster in the next five minutes or we’ll never speak again.”
Q. Married man: I am a woman. A married man on my co-ed recreational sports team is in love with me. Sometimes we get drinks after games, and it’s on these occasions that he has told me about his feelings twice and has tried to kiss me twice. I have told him that we will never have a physical relationship and that I will never be in a relationship with a married person. He sends me friendly late-night messages, like compliments about my gameplay, which honestly help my mental health (I have major depression). Sometimes he invites me to do things outside of games.
This has been going on about two years. His wife is lovely. I do not want anything romantic to happen between us and I do not want to affect his marriage. I am a little uncomfortable with his feelings, but the friendship is a net positive to me. It’s rare to have someone care about me so much. What is my responsibility here? Is this OK?
A: You’ve been consistent and straightforward about only wanting to be friends. That said, your desire to “not affect” his marriage may not be feasible. That doesn’t make you personally responsible for this guy’s actions, but it’s important to be realistic about what is and isn’t possible here, and if his wife ever saw his messages to you or otherwise learned he’d been regularly declaring himself to you for two years, she might very well be affected. If, at that point, your friendship ends, you might need to seek support for your mental health elsewhere, such that you might want to start planning ahead now. If his two declarations and two attempts to kiss you are both in the past, and you’ve been able to maintain a platonic, mostly easy relationship for a long time now, you might decide to carry on as you have been. If he’s recently continued trying to push your boundaries despite your repeated lack of interest, it might be worth reconsidering whether this guy is actually a friend you can trust and who has your best interests at heart, or whether he’s trying to see what he can extract from you when your guard is down. I do hope you’re able to cultivate other friendships with people who care about you and who can respect your limits; you deserve no less than that from your friends.
Q. Salutations, no more! Throughout their life, one of my parents went by a salutation common to their profession (think “Professor Smith”). I’m now estranged from that parent due to their abusive behavior toward me and other people. One of my colleagues at work has taken to referring to me by the same address. She knows absolutely nothing about my parent or their behavior; she’s just doing it to try to be funny and complimentary. But I hate it. Every time she says, “Good morning, Professor Smith!” I cringe. Like I said, my colleague means well, but how do I get her to stop without having to tell her the whole story (or, frankly, even part of it)?
A: “Would you please stop calling me Professor Smith? I’d rather you just referred to me by my name.” You never have to come up with a justification to ask someone (especially a colleague) to drop an unsolicited nickname; it’s perfectly polite and not a demand to return to chilly professionalism. You can say this with a friendly demeanor and make it clear this one just doesn’t do it for you.
Q. How to date as a soon-to-be-divorced dad? So I’m the letter writer with a too-close-for-comfort relationship with my soon-to-be-ex-wife (“When to stop waiting”). I (partially) took your advice and opted to pursue a new relationship, which didn’t pan out (the woman I was smitten with was flattered, but has a boyfriend. We’re going to meet for coffee anyway and I expect we will become good friends). That’s life, rejection happens, and I’m fine with it.
But now I’m left without any potential romantic prospects, and I have zero clue how to date in 2021. When I met my ex, it was 2007, smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, and online dating was far from the norm. I want to put myself out there and give myself opportunities to meet someone new, but I have no idea how to navigate this. I’d much prefer to meet people in person rather than online, as I don’t think I’m particularly good-looking or that I can adequately describe myself in an online dating profile. But we are in the middle of a pandemic, which complicates matters. I’ve been vaccinated, but it occurred to me that even in my younger years, I’ve never really been one to put myself out there—I was never into the bar/club scene, and the idea of going to something like Comic-Con (I’m a huge nerd) with the intent to meet women seems incredibly skeezy. I’m happy with my life otherwise and feel good about where my future is headed, but I don’t want to go there alone and I have no idea how to meet people. To make matters worse, every relationship I’ve ever had started with a “meet cute”—I kind of just met women by happenstance and relationships blossomed (and later decayed) from there.
A: I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that one must learn to “be OK with oneself” alone before one can be in a good relationship with someone else. But I also think that in your particular case—just about a week out from ending your marriage and attempting to get together with someone else—taking a few months, or even a year or two, to adjust to life as a single person without immediately jumping back in the dating pool might be a good idea. That’s not to say you have to put dating completely out of your mind, or observe a yearlong mourning period for your marriage or anything like that, but since you’re otherwise happy with your life and optimistic about striking up a new friendship, maybe you can take the next few months to settle into a new rhythm of life as a single person, reconnect with your friends, and take stock of your nonromantic goals.
Beyond that, there’s nothing inherently “skeezy” (certainly not “incredibly skeezy”!) about hoping to meet prospective dates at a convention or any sort of meetup predicated on a shared interest, as long as you’re prepared to take “no” for an answer and don’t interrupt someone in the middle of a conversation to blurt out, “Want to go out with me tonight?” People do still meet one another by “happenstance” (which usually means one of the following: at work, through mutual friends, in the pursuit of shared hobbies, at bars or coffee shops or other public meeting spaces) all the time, and while I’d encourage you not to dismiss online dating completely, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Some women might not be interested in you, and some women might not be interested in getting asked out while attending a convention, but it’s not forbidden or frowned upon.
Q. Re: Post-COVID nose blues: This sounds like how I felt during two hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancies—the world was an awful, smelly place. I couldn’t stand anyone’s breath or odor, or wine, or the smell of a rotten lemon buried somewhere in the pile at the grocery store.
I would definitely speak to the doctor, but you might want to look into typical HG over-the-counter remedies too—ginger, mints, sea bands, etc. They helped me some.
A: Thanks so much for this (and I’m so sorry you had to go through this too!). Another letter writer with similar experience suggested exposure-and-desensitization techniques, like those commonly used to deal with anxiety, might be helpful, either with a therapist or self-directed.
Q. Re: I wish I hadn’t read that: Good advice, Prudie, but how will she explain why she Googled him? That’s the trouble with Google. It’s weird to find out someone Googled you, and a valid question the Googlee might want to have answered.
A: It might be a slightly weird question to have to answer, but I don’t think it’s so weird or so outside the bounds of everyday behavior that it would preclude the possibility of a conversation! It’s not as if the letter writer went through his phone or guessed his email password, and it’s not more important than talking about his sexual harassment case. I think whatever discomfort might arise from how the letter writer found this information is bearable, and worth pushing through in order to have a more important (and probably more uncomfortable!) conversation.
Q. Paternity test: I’ve been married just over two years, and if you had asked me two weeks ago, I would’ve said my husband was near perfect. We’d been trying for almost a year to get pregnant, so I was over the moon to show him the positive test result. Then everything came crashing down when he asked me to take a paternity test for his “peace of mind.” I’ve never given him the slightest reason to doubt my fidelity (which he acknowledges) and he doesn’t have a history of being cheated on (although I am his first serious relationship). But he says he just can’t bond with our child until he knows for sure it’s his. I absolutely refuse to do a test during my pregnancy—there is a (very) small chance of miscarriage that I’m just not willing to take for a non-medical reason. He agreed to wait till the birth, but has now turned into a different person—distant and polite. I know that the next step is counseling, except I’m at the point that I’m not sure I even want to save the marriage. What sort of dad is he going to be if his love and trust for me is so conditional? Part of me is strongly tempted to say “You’re right, this child is not yours,” and just raise it myself. Am I overreacting?
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.