Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
I am a woman in my mid-30s who recently reentered the dating scene again after a long time (career changes, deaths of family and friends, a years-long injury, and a big move kept me very busy). I met and became friendly with a guy three years older than me last year. After a few months of chatting as friends, he asked me out, and I rejected him because I thought of us as just friends (and I was seeing someone else). He asked again two months later, and I accepted, just to try something different. Since then, we’ve gotten pretty serious, and I am extremely happy with him. He makes me feel wonderful, he’s attentive and kind, we’re on the same page on most things, and he is definitely marriage material. He’s open and honest, and he doesn’t like to play games. We’re also totally in sync in bed.
My issue is that this man is a 10, and I am, at best, a 4? 5? He’s tall and muscular with piercing blue eyes and a dazzling smile. I see the looks people give us when we go out: “HE’S with HER?!” I’ve never been particularly sensitive to what others think about me, but every time we go out, I see that same look—from men, from women, it doesn’t matter. They all look like they’ve just been electrocuted. The minute he puts his arm around me or holds my hand, the same look of shock appears on people’s faces, and it’s taking a toll on my self-esteem. I’ve definitely seen that look from all of his friends, and I wonder what they’ve said to him privately. His exes were very beautiful.
I know I need to lose some weight, and I’m trying now that my years-long injury is under control and no longer ruining my life. But I don’t care much for makeup beyond mascara, eyeliner, and some eyeshadow. I don’t get super dressed up; I hate skirts and heels, always have. I highlight my hair, and I take care of my hygiene and teeth. I have a nice smile. I wear contacts. I always look tired, ever since I was a kid. I’m plain in my looks, but this guy legitimately turns heads whenever he walks into a room.
I’m smart, talented, successful, and funny, and I know I bring these things to the table for him, but all people see from the outside is our mismatch in the hotness scale. I don’t want to change who I am; I’m usually comfortable in my own skin, until now. And he seems to like (even love) me the way I am. These looks from people don’t seem to affect him. How can I reframe my thought process every time someone looks surprised that this unicorn wants to be with an ugly duckling so that it stops messing with my self-esteem so badly?
— Ugly Duckling
Dear Ugly Duckling,
Okay hear me out: Is it possible that many people find you a bit more attractive than you find yourself, and your boyfriend is a little less attractive than you think he is, and the intense looks you are getting when you’re out are a response to the way you intensely stare people down waiting for them to react to the unicorn/ugly duckling dynamic you’ve imagined? I just ask because there really is no objectively attractive or unattractive (everyone has different taste), and I also just don’t think most people going about their daily difficult lives amid a pandemic have the bandwidth to be that worried about couples being mismatched! So just an idea.
But for purposes of advice, I will accept the fact pattern you’ve presented. When people look at you and your partner wide-eyed and aghast, you can say to yourself “They’re shocked because he’s more attractive than I am but it’s because they’re superficial and have no idea about the other ways we connect and the things he loves about my personality. I pity people who think relationships are all about looks, because they have no idea what compatibility actually is. Oh well, that’s their problem and we’re happy.”
I have been with my partner for five years. His parents live 15 minutes from us, and we get along well; we frequently go over to their house for dinner, to watch a sports game, or just spend time with them. I enjoy this and their beautiful, well-kept home, except for one thing: My partner’s mother is quite fond of home scents like Glade plug ins. I’m quite sensitive to scents, and exposure to intense fragrance products often gives me debilitating migraines with nausea. After all these years of lovely visits, I’ve said nothing about this to his parents—I have no idea how to tell them without feeling rude! I’ve taken to simply unplugging the one in the guest bathroom while I am there, and plugging it back in before I leave, but most of the house is still quite heavily scented.
Part of the reason I have never said anything is it just feels rude to say “the smell of your home, which you find pleasant, makes me terribly sick.” Another part of the reason is that my partner and his family are POC and I am white, and I worry about the problematic dynamic a white person communicating to a person of color that their home’s smell is sickening—even if it is from an artificial source and not cultural such as cooking or religious incense, and there is truly a medical issue at play.
Lately I’ve been growing more and more sick from the fragrance—sometimes a migraine is triggered by even the smell left in my dog’s fur hours after he has been in their house. I work with my medical team to manage my migraines, but despite all the medications one of the most important ways to manage this condition is identifying and avoiding triggers. Can you help me with a script to ask for some sort of accommodation while I am there without coming off as rude or entitled?
— Scents-Itive Soul
Tell a white lie and pretend this is new information: “You know how I get terrible migraines? My medical team just concluded that it’s probably from products with fragrance. I’ve had to stop using my perfume and buy unscented detergent. It’s terrible! Your house is always so clean and smells so good but I know some of the products that make it that way could be triggering my headaches. I would never want to ask you to stop using them, but could we get together at our house until I can figure out a work-around or the right medication?” That way you aren’t directly pressuring your in-laws to make change at their home, but they know they have the option if they want to host you. It would also be fine to have your husband deliver this information if that would feel more comfortable.
I think you’re overthinking the racial dynamics here. People of all backgrounds get scent-triggered migraines. And it sounds like you have a good relationship with these people and haven’t done anything in the past to be considered rude or entitled. Because of that and because it seems they generally like you, this should go over just fine.
How to Get Advice From Prudie
I’m in my late 20s and my father is in his mid-60s. He’s recently moved to a new state and has decided to try his hand at real estate. My problem? Dad has been a stay at home dad/essentially retired for my whole life. He is a total dreamer and a sweet man, but he is completely unprepared for the current workforce, let alone a competitive field. He is also somewhat delusional when it comes to his own skills/abilities. He doesn’t understand marketing/social media and thinks he can be successful without it. He refuses to create accounts to promote himself locally like his other colleagues. He is completely puzzled by all but the most basic computer programs and websites (I still have to explain how to search for stuff on YouTube and we watch videos together every day). He has poor eyesight, but won’t wear glasses/contacts for fear of seeming “old.”
I am a typical millennial who works in a fast-paced tech profession, and his lack of computer skills is alarming to me. I offer to help him with various things, but that just highlights how little he knows, and I’m feeling a sort of secondhand-embarrassment on his behalf. He won’t take classes to “brush up” (i.e. gain computer skills) because he says “he can figure anything out.” I’m scared he’ll crash and burn because he’s just not quite able to compete. I live across the country from him but stay in touch daily. How can I help him succeed and not seem like a doddering old man?
— Old Dad, New Career
Dear Old Dad,
The fact that he’s never really been employed and was able to move to a different state recently tells me that he’s probably comfortable financially. That’s great news! It’s okay to let him fail at this venture. I say that in part because, even if you wanted to help him succeed, it sounds like it would be a full-time job for you and would end up requiring you to manage him in a way that would harm this relationship. It’s possible that he’ll somehow connect with other older, lower-tech people through word of mouth, and maybe hire an assistant to handle the tasks that he can’t manage and enjoy some success. But it’s also possible that this will be a flop and he’ll move on to the next thing, no harm done.
My fiancée Nadine has never been single for more than a day since she started dating. Overlapping monogamy, her mom calls it. It’s how we met, when her last relationship was “all over but the shouting,” so I can’t really say that I’m surprised that halfway through our very amicable (our goals aren’t compatible after all) and efficient breakup, she went home for Thanksgiving and got back together with her ex. It still hurts. I guess I’d thought three years and some Big Things would merit a few sad weeks of singledom.
The break-up proceeded from there a little less amicably, but even more efficiently, until her new partner found out and was not cool with being part of the whole thing. He broke up with her. Now Nadine is having second thoughts about us splitting and every decision about what to do with her clothes/belongings/our pet fish/the lease involves hours of remembering how things used to be and tears.
I don’t know how to deal with this? I don’t want to be cruel, but I feel impatient and annoyed that everything has slowed to a damp crawl. Particularly since I don’t think she really wants me back; I mean, if her ex hadn’t pulled the plug then she’d have stayed with him. I just don’t feel as sympathetic as I would have previously. Her regret feels disingenuous. So how do you balance being kind with expediting the exit from a relationship you had thought was very, very done? Particularly when an unlovely part of you is maybe a little satisfied she’s not getting to just jump ship cleanly. I know that’s petty, but that’s why I worry about that impulse driving things.
— She Just Doesn’t Want a Gap in her Dating Resume
Dear Doesn’t Want a Gap,
You’re overthinking this. The way to be kind while exiting a relationship that needs to be over is simply not to do anything unkind. So, don’t scream at her or insult her or tell her she’s a bad person and you hope she suffers (Not that you were going to do these things). But stay broken up! I suspect that you secretly—maybe even in a way you’re not even admitting to yourself—want to give her another chance. But I worry that manufactured concerns about being cruel are covering up your very normal sad and conflicted feelings about the end of a relationship. Be careful of tricking yourself into thinking kindness should stand in the way of breaking up with someone who hasn’t been faithful to you or anyone else.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“You get to ride the uber-hot coattails, basically.”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
Some years ago, my mom randomly gave me a ring. The ring was her first big purchase for herself after she started working. It’s got a gold band, small diamond, and a sapphire set in platinum. I’m not into it and have never worn it. Lately, as I’ve been planning for my future, I’ve been wondering if I should sell it. I’m not a fan of holding onto things that don’t have meaning to me, and I’m trying to both pay off student loans and save to move across the country. How would I go about figuring out how much it’s worth and selling it? Should I share these thoughts with my mom?
— Ring Cha-Ching
Dear Ring Cha-Ching,
Go to an appraiser and see what it’s worth. My guess is that it’s probably a lot less than you think it is, just because that seems often to be the case with jewelry. If the amount of money is something that seems like it would really help you out and be worth broaching a sensitive conversation, explain what you want to do and why to your mom and ask how she’d feel about it. It sounds like she didn’t give it to you in a particularly sentimental way, so maybe she’d be fine with your selling it. But if it’s not worth enough to make a big difference to you, just hold onto it and figure out other ways to make or save money.
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
My wife, Jenny, has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Prognosis is cautiously hopeful, but the last few months have started me wondering if I should broach the long-ignored fact that my eldest (who is 15) maybe isn’t biologically mine.
The thing was that when Jenny got pregnant, we both knew that her family would kick her out, whereas mine would be more willing to help out. Especially since I was going to juvie for a while. So even though there were two other guys it might have been (neither of us were exclusive, or smart, looking back) we just said it was mine. When I got home, Ronnie was a few months old, the apple of everyone’s eye, and I think Jenny had just gotten used to the idea he was mine. We never talked about the fact he maybe wasn’t again.
I could have raised the subject too, I know, but I didn’t want to. My whole life I’d been a loser and now there was this little person that just loved me. It was the best thing I’d ever felt. He’s the reason I got anywhere in life. I don’t think he’s biologically mine—when we tried to have more children, it wasn’t possible, and we adopted our daughter—but as far as I’m concerned he is my son.
The possibility that my wife might not have the outcome we hope has, though, made me wonder if we owe it to Ronnie to tell him the truth. Or find out the truth. It just seems that if we’re ever going to it should be while his mom is here to answer his questions and help him track down his biological family. Or would it be better to let sleeping dogs lie? The last thing either of them need in the middle of all this is the thought that I’m looking to hand him off to someone else if the worst happens.
— DNA or Dad
I’m in a dark place right now. My husband is out of work and making things harder, and my friends are hanging out without me, doing things that I used to initiate when my world wasn’t falling apart. One even got married and didn’t invite me, but invited a mutual friend that she doesn’t know well.
I think I hide what I’m going through well, and I do try to send texts that don’t really go past “hello, how are you?” Some don’t even respond. I’m feeling unwelcome at home and invisible with friends. I tried to tell one about newly discovered infertility, and she wanted to know why I even want kids, considering that men suck.
My therapist told me to lean on my friends, but how do I ask my friends for support when they are unresponsive, and without feeling like a burden? And what would that support even look like?
I’m no mental health professional, but I’m disappointed that your therapist would tell you to lean on your friends without confirming that you actually had supportive friends who were available to be leaned on and had a track record of being helpful. To me, it sounds like you’re in such a bad place right now that it might not be the best idea to rely on people who haven’t indicated that they’re equipped to be there for you. Because the thing about friends is that even when they care about you and mean well, sometimes they say things that make you feel worse (like “Why do you even want kids, considering that men suck?”), and you don’t need that when you’re feeling so vulnerable. I can’t say why they’re not responding to you or including you right now, but I think you should put that—and your husband’s mood—aside until you feel stronger.
For now, focus on your own well-being and climbing out of what sounds like it could be a depressive phase. Maybe that means more visits with your therapist, or with a new therapist. You could discuss whether medication would be a good fit, even if it’s just to get you through this hard time. I strongly recommend a support group for people dealing with depression or infertility, because you deserve to be able to vent and be heard and get feedback from people who understand, and that’s mostly likely to happen in a space that’s designed for those things. In other words, your husband and friends aren’t able to show up for you right now, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting the support you need and deserve.
I am a thirtysomething female engineer who cannot stop laughing. Whenever I have a work conversation or an interview I chuckle throughout the conversation no matter the topic. This is harming my work relationships because people feel I am not taking them seriously. My dad is the same way. I would say it is partially nervousness except that I also do it with close loved ones. I have had a work discussion go like this: “Are you laughing because you think it’s funny that my land rights are being litigated?” And I reply: “No, I am laughing because it is so terrible.” Is there a short-term behavioral therapy that might help or something easy that could help in work situations? I don’t want to erase this feature; I like laughing and I think my friends understand.