Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
A few months ago, I got a new coworker, “Kelsey,” in the cubicle next to mine. Since we returned to work in person last year, a group of us more recent hires eat lunch together on Fridays, and we welcomed her into the lunch routine. Kelsey is fun and gets along with everyone, but the way she interacts with me individually sets me on edge. During one of these lunches, another coworker put themselves down, and I gently encouraged them. Kelsey pivoted towards me with a look of awe, and said, “You’re an empath too!” Since then, she’s mentioned several times how she notices the way I talk to people and engage in meetings and then wants to discuss what it’s like “being the only empaths in the office” and wanting to compare the “energies” we’re getting from people.
Prudie, this bothers me, in part because she’s somewhat right! Earlier in my career, I did struggle with over-empathizing in the workplace, went to therapy, and still do a lot of reflection to maintain a sense of self and boundaries with, well, everyone. How do I address Kelsey’s knowing eye contact during meetings, probing questions about my work and personal life, and insistence that I’m “just like her”? So far, just saying “I see things differently, and I need to keep working” just causes another round of questions.
— At Cliff’s Edge
Dear Cliff’s Edge,
You have to speak her language. “Kelsey, you know how we’re both empaths. Well, as a result my energy has been feeling extremely heavy from absorbing everyone else’s emotions. I have a New Year’s intention to set boundaries around work, and I am manifesting a new era in which I don’t discuss my or anyone else’s personal issues at the office. Thank you for your love, light, and support.”
New Year, Same Problems
For an upcoming special edition of Dear Prudence, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A mother-in-law who is slowly poisoning you? An underground diaper operation that’s driving you mad? A poorly named horse? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)
I am 25, male, single, and live on my own. I had a live-in girlfriend for a while, our relationship was pretty bumpy, lots of breakups and make-ups, but we both felt a very strong connection that we couldn’t ignore and I have no reason to believe she was unfaithful. When we started hanging out, she still had a boyfriend. And then a few days after we broke up, I found another guy in her bed one morning after she had spent a night out. The “one I wasn’t supposed to worry about.” After an argument while still living together post-breakup, she moved in with him in a matter of days.
I went about my life and tried to move on, but one day she called me after almost zero contact for a year and we got to chatting and reconnected. She had recently been broken up with by the guy she was living with. At first, we were verging on intimacy, but she told me there was another guy in her life and she didn’t wanna betray him as they had agreed to be exclusive, despite lots of making out and her saying “what he don’t know won’t hurt him.” I decided even though it hurt me a little to be second fiddle, I’d still hang out with her because of the connection. She seems happy enough with him, but often complains or gripes about how she doesn’t think he has the same values about love and relationships. She has told me before that he is just temporary because he is an exchange student who will be going back home in March.
And I am still very much in love with her, so her intonations that I may still have a chance with her have me waiting around for her in some way. They are now officially dating, and he seems perfectly ok with me taking her out to weddings and grabbing dinner. I know she would not be ok with him doing the same with his ex. And she continues to call their relationship temporary, saying he’s going home soon and she just wants to see it through to see what a “healthy relationship” (unlike ours I guess that means) is like. Why am I still so in love with this girl? And what makes her act this way? Am I being manipulated here? And what do I do if she wants to rekindle in a few months? Please provide some healthy talking points and courses of action.
— Hopelessly Devoted
Dear Hopelessly Devoted,
You and your ex are those people who post passive-aggressive quotes about relationships on Instagram to send messages to each other while everyone else in the world is like “What the hell are you talking about? Are you ok?”, aren’t you? The answer to “why am I still so in love with this girl?” is “because you’re addicted to drama!” That is also the answer to “what makes her act this way?” I don’t mean to be too dismissive—I know this is emotional and hard—but you have not made the choices of a person who wants their love life to be smooth and easy. It’s okay! It might just be what you need to go through right now, to learn your mid-20s lessons about what you want and don’t.
When you decide you want peace and are ready to clear the way for a healthy relationship—which honestly might take another year of back and forth until you get sick of being hurt and confused and that feeling of being in love fades—your talking point is “I care about you but it’s not healthy for us to do this anymore. I want to be with someone who knows what she wants and is emotionally available to me. I’m going to block you on everything until I’ve healed and moved on.”
My husband and I have been married for one year, together for five years. We’re empty nesters. I have three grown children from my previous marriage, and he has two. We love each other’s kids very much, but I sense some jealousy in my husband when I spend too much time talking to or seeing my kids and not focusing enough on him, an insecurity I feel is not always endearing. I love him and believe I’m a good wife, but I consider myself an independent woman too. I watch my 18-month-old granddaughter two full days a week, a commitment of another year possibly, which he does support. We recently made plans for a two-week trip to Italy, just the two of us, my first trip to Europe and my absolute dream destination country to travel to. He has shared this dream with me, and we were looking forward to this adventure very much.
However, my youngest, and only daughter, just announced that she and her husband are expecting their first child during the same timeframe as our trip. I want to postpone the trip so I can be there as support for my daughter, which she has expressed she wants too. My husband does not want to postpone and is angry/hurt that I’m not considering his feelings. I understand and share his frustration with the ill-timing, but I also feel it’s one of those times as a parent when you put your child’s needs ahead of your own, despite the fact she is a grown adult with a supportive husband. I also don’t feel I’d have a good time on vacation knowing I’m not going to be present for my grandchild’s birth or be there to help support my daughter. Any thoughts on how to help my husband understand that a postponement of a month or two is the best solution for our family? Unfortunately, COVID has led to the cancellation of two previous attempted trips in the last two years for us.
— Till Then, Tuscany
You obviously shouldn’t go. Plus, does your husband really want to be in Europe with someone who is obsessively checking her phone for labor updates, worrying about her daughter’s physical and emotional well-being, and then trying to FaceTime her new grandchild? That’s no way to have a vacation. And of course you’d regret it, and it would be so sad for your daughter.
To be honest, I think the ideal husband would accept this change of plans without anger.
At the same time, I can see why he’s annoyed—canceling a vacation is no fun. And, based on the way you told this story, I think his allegation that you didn’t consider his feelings might be valid. The way forward here is not to “help [him] understand that a postponement of a month or two is the best solution for our family.” That’s way too logical of an approach, and this is about emotions—both yours and his. What you want to do is to explain to him how painful it would be to miss this event, and how much it will mean to you to be there. And you want to acknowledge how shitty it is that he’s having to cancel vacation for the third time, apologize for that, ask for his understanding, and see if there’s any way to make it up to him. That will go a long way. I don’t think he is actually extremely attached to a particular vacation date, and I don’t think he needs you to win a debate about how rescheduling makes sense. He just wants to feel like his point of view is being seen and taken into consideration.
After this major life event is over—maybe when you’re both relaxed and finally on your vacation—you’re going to need to address your sense that he’s jealous of your relationship with your kids and grandchildren. That’s not something you want to tiptoe around for the rest of your life. And I hope he’s able to take your feelings about this as seriously as you take his feelings about the postponed trip.
Catch up on this week’s Prudie.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a freshman in high school and have an unghostable friend, “Ashley.” Ashley is toxic—constantly blaming others for her own mistakes, gossiping about friends behind their backs, and even outing one of our mutual friends and my close friend, “Kara,” to me and a few other people. Kara and I decided to ghost her a few weeks ago—we stopped chatting with her in the hallways, texting her, and spending time with her. We’re polite and civil to Ashley at school but do not make any efforts to further communicate. The problem is Ashley is not getting the hint. She’s frequently calling, texting, snapping, and video chatting me, although I don’t respond or pick up. That doesn’t seem to stop her…