Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Can’t stop the itching: I have a sticky, icky situation at work. In the past year, a new equity partner joined our firm. I have a support role. I have known the new person professionally for years and we have always had friendly interactions. Here’s the issue: This person is a slob. They work hard, often late into the night. They leave food wrappers, half-empty bottles of soda, and copious amounts of work materials scattered everywhere, including shared spaces like multiple conference rooms. Their leftover takeout containers fill about 75 percent of our smallish refrigerator. The flooring in their office is not readily visible due to the hoarderlike amount of crap scattered everywhere. They have an air mattress in their office and often spend the night there.
To cut to the chase, I am much more an Oscar than a Felix, but I found a bug crawling across some furniture in a common area. I Googled it. It is a bedbug. I am certain the new partner is the source. There are no signs of bugs coming from anywhere else in our office and no one is showing signs of bites.
The social structure of our firm is complicated on several levels. Revealing an infestation would be devastating and would precipitate a variety of changes that would have immediate effect on the viability of the firm. Our firm is not the only one in our building.
So, do I retire early, resort to arson, blow things up by revealing our affliction to our firm, or try to resolve the situation with a midnight extermination? And who or what would be the target of the hit?
A: Well, first of all, I hope you are taking off all your clothes at your front door when you get home every day and sealing them in a trash bag—bedbugs are not to be messed with. And you can’t keep this a secret. You need to contact the office manager or facilities manager or whoever handles cleaning-type issues immediately. All you need to say is that you found a bedbug (include a picture if you see another one!) in a common area. Then your job is done.
I don’t know enough to understand why this could be devastating for the firm (can’t everyone just work from home for a while while an exterminator comes in?), but that’s not your problem anyway. Plus, do you know what would be really devastating? Having all of your colleagues terrorized by insects as they slowly take over the entire building as well as everyone’s homes.
I don’t want you to worry about identifying the source of the bedbugs or placing blame on the filthy equity partner. Being a slob doesn’t make bedbugs appear. In fact, someone very clean could have easily picked them up in a hotel or on the train. It will be easier for you to tell the truth about this if you think of yourself as protecting the office from a more serious infestation rather than telling on someone for being messy.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)
• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.
Q. Exhausted by in-laws: Half a year ago, my husband died after a yearslong battle with cancer. We have a 4-year-old daughter. I think the two of us are dealing well, considering. I have regular therapy sessions and am in touch with a child psychologist, who supports me in how to best help my child deal with the situation. I also have help from family and friends, and my employer has been very supportive.
My biggest headache is my parents-in-law. They live quite far away and want to visit every couple of months. They stay in a hotel, but want to spend as much time with my daughter and me as they can. I find them exhausting. They are judgmental, boring, and they say the most insensitive and inappropriate things, like telling me not to worry, my daughter is so young she will soon forget her father. They say inane things, over and over, like, “So now it is already half a year since my son died.” They refuse to do anything that would be fun for the little one and just want to sit around at home.
But worst of all: My daughter does NOT like them. She hates spending time with them. When I ask her why, she says that my mother-in-law pokes her and does not stop when she says no. (It is a gentle poke to get attention.) There are similar things like calling her lazybones (10 times!) when she does not want to walk, or pretending to repeatedly misunderstand her, which annoys her. I think my mother-in-law does it to get her attention, and I have told her to stop many times. It just continues on and on. She also often asks for hugs or kisses, which my daughter refuses outright. She tries to get on her good side by giving her tons of gifts and giving her sweets even after I tell her not to. We argue at least once every visit, and my child also hates that.
When my husband was still alive, the in-laws were easier to bear as we could share the burden and laugh in private about their antics. But now, I feel I cannot take it any more. I feel their misbehavior is not bad enough to justify going no contact. I also feel a lot of compassion—they have just lost a son. But it is so draining! I do not want to force my small family to deal with this every few months. We have enough on our plates as it is! What should I do?
A: This would almost be easier if they were just a bit worse, so you could cut them off, guilt-free. To be clear, you can go no contact if you want. It’s your right, especially if they’re making you and your daughter miserable. But I think you’d feel better if you set really clear expectations and gave them an opportunity to improve. Maybe there is a valuable relationship under all their annoying behavior.
You need to take back control. They want to stay in the house? So what! You and your daughter don’t, and you will be going to the zoo. Tell them what the plan is before they plan a visit, and if it doesn’t work for them, they can come another time. They call your daughter names? They get one warning, and then that’s the end of the visit.
I actually think the fact that you frequently argue is helpful here, because it means you’re used to conflict with them, and they know you’re not happy with their behavior. Why don’t you reach out to reset expectations by having a direct conversation that includes something like this. “MIL and FIL, I’m sure you’ve noticed we end up arguing almost every time you visit. I want to talk about it when we’re not in the heat of the moment and my daughter isn’t around. These are the things that really upset me [insert list of bad behaviors] and are not OK. I want to continue to have a relationship with you, but I can’t if you keep doing these things. I know you love your grandchild and don’t mean any harm, but I have to be firm about this. Can you agree to stop?”
I hope you can let them get away with being annoying and making dumb comments, once the major issues that have to do with your daughter’s well-being are addressed.
Q. Conflicted and concerned: My boyfriend works a regular job but he is also passionate about his band. They just won a contest and have been invited to perform at a European music festival this month. The festival is large, indoors, and takes place over a few days. He and his bandmates want to arrive a couple of days early and stay a few days after to explore.
I would be ecstatic if it were not for the pandemic. But this plan involves crowds, time spent inside, multiple hotels, public transit, and long international flights. What’s more, both he and I are at increased risk of complications from COVID for different reasons. We’ve gotten the vaccine, but the protection isn’t guaranteed.
He’s asked me to come along and said he really wants me there. I want so much to go to support him and to have an opportunity to do some travel abroad. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I’m also terrified for both our health and safety. Honestly I don’t think this festival should be happening at all. It seems insanely dangerous to hold an event like this during a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious respiratory virus. Having many people from around the world cram into an indoor space is beyond negligent; it’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s very important for me to support him, but I’m so scared. He’s made it very clear they are going. If I do not, I think he will feel unsupported, rejected, and mad that I didn’t take this opportunity. But if I go, I am risking my life. Please tell me what to do!
A: No reasonable person would tell you that it makes sense to risk your safety to go on this trip. Yes, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but your lifetime might get a lot shorter if you contract this virus. Even if you went, you’d be so worried about exposure that it wouldn’t be a good time. You should stay home, and he can feel however he feels.
I was going to tell you about some alternative ways to make your boyfriend feel supported, but on second thought, I don’t want you to do anything to strengthen a relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to care about the safety of your feelings. And he clearly hasn’t given any thought to supporting you. Stay home and use the time apart to think about the qualities you’d like in a partner.
Q. Premature “I love you”: I’ve been in a casual relationship since this summer. It’s been great and I like that it’s pretty low-maintenance. Over the weekend, the guy and I both ate some edibles and had sex. I then blurted out “I love you.” He said he loved me too and I could tell he meant it. I, however, did not. He’s not even close to the type of guy I would ever be serious enough to fall in love with. I think it’s just been so long since I’ve actually said I love you that I was craving it.
Since then, he’s been engaging in behavior that I would characterize as serious relationship behavior. I really, really, want this to go back to casual, but I can’t imagine that happening if I tell him I didn’t mean to say, “I love you.” Do you have any advice for what I can do? Is this going to have to be the end of the relationship?
A: Oh no. He definitely took your “I love you” as a sign to move the relationship forward. And I can’t say I blame him! You are going to have to have a very awkward and very difficult conversation with him in which you explain that your outburst didn’t reflect your true feelings and you want to keep things casual—and you should also be as kind and understanding as possible if he decides to end the relationship as a result. Make sure to apologize for misleading him.
Introducing the How to Do It podcast
Your wildest sex advice questions are now being answered in your headphones. Listen to new episodes with Stoya and Rich every Sunday, with exclusive episodes for Slate Plus members on Mondays.
Q. Re: Exhausted by in-laws: Also, try to find little things you can let them have as “wins.” The name-calling and unwanted poking is an absolute no-go. But excess gifts can be donated once they’re gone and the candy is annoying, but every few months? Maybe not a deal-breaker.
A: Good advice. Being a little annoyed at people who do things differently is just kind of the price you pay for having a relationship with relatives who aren’t part of your immediate family. I think in most cases it’s easier because you love them and really want the relationship, while this letter writer might personally be fine if she never saw her in-laws again. But assuming she does want to keep them around for the sake of her child, with the hope that their behavior will improve, this is a really good perspective.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Looks like that’s all for today! I’ll talk to all of you next Tuesday, because Monday is a holiday. See you then.
From How to Do It
My husband “Matt” and I have been married for just more than eight months. We recently took a weekend trip with a group of college friends for another wedding. After one too many drinks, a friend began to reminisce about how Matt and his best friend “Will” (who is gay) would get drunk and have regular sexual encounters—both during and for years after college. Up until this point, I had absolutely no idea about this; everyone else in the group seemed to know except for me. In fact, another friend asked, “How did you not know?” When I asked Matt about it, he confirmed and said that he can’t remember exactly when it ended. Do I have the right to be upset that my husband chose to keep this from his me, his wife?