Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Not faking it: I am currently disabled. I’ve worked my way up to being up and about for an hour to two each day. Whenever I go out, people say the oddest things to me. Today, when I parked my car, a man came up and said suspiciously, “You don’t look disabled.” I said I just had surgery and rushed away. This happens almost any time I use my handicapped tag. Friends will tell me that I don’t look sick, or that I look great, and then take it personally when I say that I can’t go out for long or go to events. One of my best friends today asked if I had just tried increasing my pain tolerance. I never know how to respond, and knowing that these interactions are coming makes me anxious about leaving my apartment. What can I say to strangers who confront me about my disability, and to friends who don’t get it?
A: This will hopefully serve as a reminder to all readers that not every disability is immediately visible, and that it’s not the job of the general public to monitor people with handicapped placards for signs that they “really” need them. You don’t owe strangers a damn thing, much less an explanation, and I’m so sorry that so many people have taken it upon themselves to demand one of you. Feel enormously free to ignore them.
Getting this sort of treatment from your friends seems so much more painful. I cannot imagine why your friend would say something as amazingly stupid as, “Have you tried just feeling less pain?” That’s worth revisiting, especially since you say this person is one of your best friends. This is not something you can simply decide to ignore, and your friend should apologize for suggesting you just “get over” something like chronic pain. I hope there are people in your life who understand that you are dealing with a new reality, and who are looking for ways to demonstrate their care and support, rather than demand when you’re going to “get better.”
Q. How do I know if I want children?: I’m in my mid-20s and have been in a relationship with an amazing guy for a little over a year. He’s kind-hearted, funny, understanding, and just all-around great.
The one area where I see any potential conflict for our future is family planning: He doesn’t want any children, and I’m not sure. Most times, I find children noisy, annoying, and a financial and time burden. When I think of myself having children, it seems exhausting and terribly annoying, something that would prevent me from going ahead in life and living fully. But occasionally—generally when I see a cute baby or a well-behaved child—I feel almost a bit of a craving to hold one of my own in my arms, and think that I’d rather like to have a couple in the next 10 years.
How do I unpack my feelings, and know what I want? I love my boyfriend and want to build a future with him, but I’m scared that five or 10 years down the line I’ll suddenly want children and it’ll destroy our relationship.
A: I wish so much that I could promise you that there will come a day, sooner or later, when you will “know what you want” without reservation or doubt, but I can’t. You can spend more time searching your own feelings, you can come to a more thorough understanding of your desires and fears, you can even make decisions based on the strength of your self-knowledge, but you may very well feel unsure (or even change your mind) about any decision you make. There is likely a lovely, happy, meaningful version of your life where you do have children. There is likely a lovely, happy, meaningful version of your life where you don’t. Ask yourself the question independently of your boyfriend’s wishes. That’s not to say that your circumstances can’t or shouldn’t ever influence your decisions, but you need to answer for yourself what your feelings are about having children, not simply what your feelings are after taking his feelings into account first.
If someday you do decide you want to have children and your boyfriend doesn’t, it will not have “destroyed” your relationship—the end of that romantic relationship will be absolutely necessary for the two of you.
Q. Mother’s insensitivity: I have bipolar disorder and OCD. I live with my elderly mother and, for the most part, we get along well. My issue is that my mother is grossly insensitive to my need for her to not touch my food. She is not good about washing her hands after various personal activities. Last week, she started picking things off of my half of a pizza with her fingers, and I asked her to not touch my food for the umpteenth time. She claimed angrily, not for the first time, that I “play out the OCD thing to an extreme” on purpose. I do not, and I’ve worked hard to keep my OCD from being a problem for others.
How can I get my mother to grasp the fact that when anyone touches my food I am unable to eat that food? I do a great deal of work for her in this house, and I don’t think that it is too much to ask that she understand and accept my needs.
A: Tell her, “I’m not ‘playing out the OCD thing.’ I have OCD, which affects my life on a regular basis regardless of how much I might wish it didn’t. I’ve asked you not to touch my food, and you refuse to stop. It’s a simple request, but if you can’t honor it, then I won’t be able to eat with you.” If your mother attempts to do anything but stop touching your food—if she tries to turn this into an argument, if she tries to convince you that it’s fine for her to do this, if she tries to insist that she “just can’t remember” that you don’t want her putting her hands on your food, then simply say, “I’ve asked you not to do this. I’m going to go now,” and eat elsewhere. Either she’ll learn to do better, or you’ll eat more meals without her; either way, you do not have to put up with this rudeness, not even from your mother.
If any readers have particular experience trying to set boundaries with parents they live with, especially while dealing with a mental health diagnosis, please feel free to share anything that’s worked for you.
Q. Is there ever a point in asking “what happened?” about a romance that never was?: In the summer I’ll be visiting the country where I went to university. One of the friends I’ll be seeing is a guy with whom I had a rather flirty but platonic relationship. We really clicked and I liked him, but never made a move because he’d implied in passing that he was gay and/or asexual (I’m a woman). We had one encounter in summer 2016 where he was more flirty (verbally and physically) than usual, which I enjoyed and reciprocated, but the next time we met, he seemed to have lost romantic interest. I felt embarrassed and stopped contacting him, though we started to interact sporadically on Twitter months later. We’ve been in touch since I moved and it’s been flirting-free. When we meet, is there any point asking him about his change of heart, or should I let it go?
A: You can ask, I suppose, but it sounds like you already know the answer—he’s gay and/or asexual, and at some point he decided to change his behavior from “flirtatious” to merely “friendly.” You don’t say he grew cold or distant, merely that your interactions lost a certain potentially romantic charge, and that you pulled back as a result. The fact that you two have been reconnecting on friendly terms over the last few months seems like a very clear sign that he likes you as a friend and doesn’t want to reignite his old flirtatious behavior. I think your best next move is to be friendly in return, accept that your respective orientations are incompatible, and look for someone else to click with romantically.
Q. Not looking for a sister-in-law: I’m in my mid-20s and so is my boyfriend of about a year and a half. His sister just moved to our city to begin to college. At first I was excited to get to know her better, but now we see her every weekend. I don’t love hanging out with someone whose life is in such a different stage of mine so frequently and I feel like I have gained a sister-in-law I was not ready for. Is there a gentle way to bring up to my boyfriend that I don’t enjoy seeing his sister every weekend?
A: Yes, of course! “I like your sister, and I’m glad you two are so close, but I don’t want to spend every weekend with her. Next weekend, I’m going to [see a movie with friends/go dancing/check out a bookstore]. Do you want to come with me?”
Q. Disgraced professor: My son is in high school and has been being tutored by a college math associate professor for the past six months. My son has made fantastic progress and has overcome years of failing math grades.
The problem is that this professor was just fired for sexual harassment at his college. It was a big enough deal to make the local paper and everyone has backed away from him. He has been ejected from his other leadership positions in town and is now seen as a pariah. (The level of harassment was Louis C.K.-level, not Weinstein.)
I want to continue the tutoring as long as possible. I am concerned about the message my son gets in this, but at the same time, this tutoring is the only thing that has ever worked for my son in math. He has taken a child who may have not graduated high school and put him on track for college. What should I do?
A: Oh, I can think of a number of things you can do. Ask yourself, what sort of message will I be sending my high school–aged son about the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault if I encourage him to continue working with this man? How do I feel about myself when I say, “This man who was fired for sexual harassment ‘only’ did things like forcibly keep someone from leaving the room while he masturbated in front of them?” Do you feel honorable? Do you feel proud to pass this sort of mindset on to your child? Do you think your son’s math grade is worth this sort of compromise, this moral haziness, this minimization, this couching? Do you truly think there is no other tutor in your area who can help your son with his studies? Have you truly exhausted all of your other options? Have you even explored a single alternative, or have you already decided what you’re going to do, and are merely looking for reassurance that you can continue with this tutoring and think of yourself as a good person?
What on earth do you mean when you say you want this tutoring to continue for “as long as possible”? Do you mean until you get what you want—your son’s acceptance to a good college, at which point you’ll feel free to end the relationship? Do you mean until other people start asking you why you’re still working with this man as if nothing has happened?
I’m afraid at this point I’ve asked you more questions than you have asked me. My best advice for you is that you try to answer them as honestly as you can, and make your decision from there.
Q. Emotional affair: My husband barely talks to me anymore. Our conversations center on our sons, the dog, and our house. Anything intimate or emotional, he clams up and changes the subject.
My husband has a twin sister with whom he has always been close. She never liked me very much and discouraged my husband from dating me while we were in college. She has warmed up since we got married and is civil when I see her, but that is it.
I am ashamed to admit it, but I went through my husband’s email after a lot of “late nights” at work. He wasn’t having an affair, but instead I found email after email of my husband discussing everything with his sister. He was worried about losing his job, thinking about moving careers, and talking about our marriage. He told her that I was more concerned about “being near a farmer’s market” than helping out financially (I am a stay-at-home mom). It was nauseous to read about all the details he told her—like he felt pressured by me to have a third kid, that I wanted to be a mom more than a wife, how our finances were going, et cetera.
I confronted my husband and I didn’t do it calmly. I know it was wrong to snoop but I felt so betrayed and exposed then. I told him I saw him pulling away from me and I thought he was having an affair, so I looked for evidence and found he was having an emotional affair with his sister. He got so angry I thought he might hit me. He screamed that I was sick in the head to accuse him of screwing his sister. That isn’t what I said!
Since then, he won’t talk to me and can barely look at me. As soon as the boys are in bed, my husband goes into the guest room and locks the door. My husband grew up without a father and always said he would never leave any of his kids; I don’t think he will ask for a divorce, but I can’t stand the thought of this being my life until our children grow up. I don’t know what to do. He wouldn’t agree to counseling because he “didn’t do anything wrong.” I feel so alone now. Can you help me?
A: Your marriage has suffered about as thorough a breakdown of mutual trust and respect as it is possible to suffer. Go to counseling without your husband (for what it’s worth, relationship counseling is not actually about finding out who “did something wrong” and assigning blame, but about identifying problems in the relationship and finding new ways to approach them). It’s worth trying to figure out how you got to a point in your marriage that you could not speak directly about your issues but felt you had to go through his email, as well as the fact that, rather than saying, “You’ve been talking to your sister about our marital problems and I feel hurt and betrayed,” you accused your husband of having romantic feelings for his own sister.
On some level, you must have known that saying that would cross a line you could not easily return from. Was part of you hoping you could blow up your marriage, that at last you’d have something the two of you would have to talk about, if only to say that you were going to divorce over it? It’s worth figuring out the answers to these questions even if your husband doesn’t accompany you. I can’t imagine it’s likely that the two of you will be able to stay together—it may be best for everyone involved if the two of you divorce—but you deserve the chance to work through this with a good therapist. Go tomorrow.
Q. Gay: My sister came out as a lesbian this summer and I came out as bisexual this Thanksgiving to our very moderate middle-class parents. There were tears and talking and more tears, but my parents are ultimately supportive—almost too much so.
My father brings up his “gay kids” in everyday conversations to complete strangers. An old high school friend who works as a barista mentioned it to me when my dad comes in for coffee. He says how proud he is of us, but he brings it up all the time! My mom has joined PFLAG and has taken to taking pictures of pretty girls and sending them to my sister and me in an effort to set us up. My sister finds it amusing and sweet, but she lives 300 miles away. I live 30 minutes from my parents. I know how lucky I am and how my parents are only acting out of love but it is very embarrassing. How do I tell my parents I appreciate their effort but lay off it?
A: Oh, this is extremely sweet and charming and I can completely appreciate your embarrassment. Some of this I think is worth letting go, like the fact that your mother is in PFLAG (that’s a great outlet for her newfound enthusiasm, frankly), but there’s other things I think you can address. Tell your mother, “Mom, I love how supportive you’ve been, but I don’t want you to set me up with anyone, and it makes me uncomfortable when you send me pictures of pretty girls asking if I’d like to go out with them. I know you’re just looking for ways to connect with me, so please don’t feel like I’m trying to shut you down, but I just don’t want to find prospective dates this way.”
For your father, I’d suggest this: “Dad, I appreciate how supportive you’ve been since we came out, and I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk about our relationship with anyone, but I’d appreciate it if you were a little more restrained when you bring us up around strangers or acquaintances. The other day a barista at the coffee shop you go to told me that they’d heard I came out, and I’m not comfortable having that kind of conversation with someone I barely knew in high school. Does that make sense?” Your parents sound like great people who are trying as hard as they can to love and support you; my guess is that they’ll ultimately appreciate any direction you can give them.
Q. More than a “mentee”: I recently started my first year in a new job, and was assigned a tenured employee to be my mentor during our orientation program. “Jennifer” is very sweet, tries to be helpful as I learn the ropes, and we have developed a friendly working relationship.
However, she has a habit that has been driving me crazy. Ever since the first time we met during the new employee orientation, Jennifer has refused to call me by my first name, preferring to call me “mentee” every time she interacts with me. If I see her in the building in the morning, I am always greeted by “Good morning, mentee!” or “How are you today, mentee?” At first it was sweet, but now that I’ve worked here for five months, it’s become irritating, and it has even extended to how she addresses me on social media. I know she means well, but it makes me feel like I am a child, instead of an adult who is her equal in our line of work. My co-workers have even started teasing me about it, and although it might seem petty, it really bothers me. How do I approach Jennifer and ask her to call me by my actual name without offending her or making her feel bad? I have avoided addressing it for fear of hurting her feelings.
A: “Would you please call me by my first name when we’re at work? I’m enjoying our mentoring relationship, but I’d rather be addressed by my name than as ‘mentee.’ Thank you!”
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everybody! See you next week.
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