Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Green-eyed: My ex remarried a few years ago to a woman who is 15 years younger than me, has a Ph.D., and is quite wealthy. I basically owe her my life. My boyfriend got arrested, I got pregnant, and our house almost burned down. She provided my children and me an apartment that she owns, paid for a nanny, and helped with getting the house rebuilt. My kids are over at their dad’s most afternoons (including my now 3-year-old, saving me day care fees). I am back on my feet and biting back nasty comments whenever my kids talk about her. I am just stewing, and I feel so ashamed at times I make myself sick. What is wrong with me, and how do I make it stop?
A: You went through a series of incredibly stressful and painful events, were rescued by your ex’s seemingly perfect new wife, and are now exhausted from sitting in a position of constant gratitude. I don’t think anything is wrong with you—you feel resentful and insecure and ashamed next to this remarkable woman who has done so much to help you, which is fairly understandable—but I do think it’s wise of you to seek to curtail your feelings. It’s wonderful that you are now in a position to take care of yourself and your children without outside assistance, and I think at least some of this newly freed-up time and funds should go toward paying for a therapist. You’re right to bite back your nasty comments in front of your children. They have a warm, loving relationship with their stepmother, and you shouldn’t try to damage it, for your own sake as well as theirs. But you need someone to share your unlovely and uncharitable feelings with, and a therapist will help you sort out your resentments without damaging your relationships.
Q. Adopted adult needs advice: I’m adopted. For almost seven years I have known how to find my birth family. I have also known that my birth mother, who wanted me to contact her someday, died when I was 13. I would like to reach out to them and have written unsent letters in the past. Based on letters my birth mother wrote me, they know about me. I have no idea whether they’d like to know me or how I’d explain why I haven’t reached out until now. I’ve been ready for years. I have just never taken the time. What do you say to your family when they’re not exactly your family?
A: I want to open this one up to any adult adoptee readers—how did you initiate contact with your birth family, if you’ve met them? What do you wish you’d known that you’d like to pass on to our letter writer now?
Q. Is my ex and children’s father cheating on his wife? Many years ago, my children’s father cheated on me. We split, and he married the woman who he cheated with. We have had our differences, big time! However, we are civil, and she is my children’s loving stepmother. Last night I got a text from my ex, “Dan.” The message said that he was about to go back to work (he’s been out from work for surgery), he could come back to a location I think is a school district if he was needed, and he hopes the kid is doing better. Then immediately Dan texted back that he had the wrong text. Normally I wouldn’t ever get in other people’s business and say anything about a possibly innocuous text mixup, but this situation feels very personal to me. I feel vehemently angry about the possibility of him doing to her what he did to me. Am I being crazy? Or should I discreetly let her know that something is possibly awry?
A: This does not sound like a cheating text to me! This sounds like a fairly innocuous work-scheduling text. I understand you feeling a high level of sensitivity to any possible affairs on your ex’s part, but I do not think you need to tell his new wife anything.
Q. Re: Adopted adult needs advice: I reached out to my bio siblings and have truly enjoyed getting to know them. They, and the more extended family, understand that I need space and that some things are awkward. No one tries to push more on me than I want. My bio mom died before I met the siblings. I think if the letter writer wants to meet them, he or she should—no need to make excuses and explain as to why he or she hasn’t reached out in the past.
A: Thanks for sharing this!
Q. Genealogy and abuse in my past: My mother-in-law recently took up genealogy and has paid for the privilege of compiling a family tree on an ancestry website. She is now asking me for my personal information to place on this website, including my exact birthdate and place of birth. She is aware that due to a history of abuse in my family, I don’t use social media of any kind—we have argued over her placing pictures of my kids on social media. I’m also not completely comfortable compiling a resource that links me to some of the members of my family, some of whom are still serving time for the abuse I mentioned, that my mother-in-law wants to share with my young kids. I’m also particularly against providing my parents’ personal information without their permission, as they have similar viewpoints to me. My husband wants me to cough up the information to avoid a major conflict.
A: “I have no interest in helping you compile a family tree that would publicly connect me to people who are currently in prison for abusing me. Surely you can understand what a cruel request this would be,” should serve as a suitable answer. What a shame that your mother-in-law prioritizes her hobby over your wellness and safety, and that your husband thinks you should give in to her demands in order to avoid a quarrel. Not everyone has happy associations with their family histories, and bullying someone into putting a pleasant gloss over a painful connection is inexcusable.
Q. Upstairs neighbor: We have a terrible upstairs neighbor—she plays loud music, performs clog dances (literally), stomps throughout the house, etc. We’ve tried to talk to her, but she won’t open her door; we’ve gone to the rental office, and they’ve offered to let us out of our lease. Now we’re looking for a house to purchase and are pretty close to moving. I want to leave this neighbor a really nasty note on our way out. I write this letter in my head daily as I listen to country music blasting during the precious little downtime I have in my apartment. I know that in the heat of the moment it will feel good, but if I had a kid, I wouldn’t want him or her to model that kind of behavior. What would you do?
A: Don’t worry about the moral development of the children you don’t have. Weigh the dark joy you would feel leaving this note against the emptiness of not being able to see her read the note. It would be one thing if you could hide in the shadows and watch her crestfallen face as she realized how much she had wronged you via clogging, but you won’t get that much satisfaction out of slipping a note under her door and moving away. If she is the kind of person who refuses to open the door when someone knocks on it, she is probably also the kind of person who throws away angry letters from former neighbors. Your righteous indignation would be wasted on this clogging woman; move away and allow her to become an amusing anecdote in the backstory of your life.
Q. Re: Adopted adult needs advice: Believe it or not, you are under no obligation to contact them. I never have. I think about it from time to time, but I always decide not to. I love my adoptive family, and they’ve always offered to help search or contact. If you choose to, simply send a letter introducing yourself. No need to offer explanations about why now. It is a deeply personal decision. If they ask, just simply say that now felt like the right time.
A: It’s good to hear from someone who’s decided not to reach out and feels peaceful about it. Thanks very much.
Q. Belly-touching: After three lost pregnancies, my husband and I are expecting in June. We’re very excited! I’m normally a very affectionate person, but I’m having anxiety about the possibility of random strangers reaching out to touch my growing stomach. I think it’s terribly rude to touch someone in a vulnerable and sensitive place without asking, and I would never dream of doing it to another woman. If this happens, which I assume it will, how should I react that might get them to think twice about ever doing it again?
A: “Don’t touch me.” (Guys! Don’t touch people without asking! If you’re in doubt, err on the side of not touching strangers! This seems pretty straightforward.)
Q: Unsuccessfully duking it out: My husband and I have been together for seven years now. We have a fantastic relationship except for one thing: We don’t know how to fight constructively. We don’t fight terribly often, but when we do, it goes a little something like this: One of us brings up something that upsets the other. The other takes it very personally and becomes defensive. A loud argument ensues. Feelings are hurt. One storms off to another room, and we ignore each other for a couple of days until we just quietly decide to act like nothing had happened. I know this is unhealthy, but he refuses to go to counseling because he says he’s already worked on changing himself, so now it’s my turn to work on changing. Until I do, he won’t even consider counseling. We’re at an impasse because I firmly believe I’ve tried to change my own behavior, and if it isn’t satisfactory, then the only thing left to try is counseling. And even though I will admit that he’s worked hard over the years to rein in his anger issues, I honestly don’t see any changes in the way he handles our arguments. Since we can’t seem to reach an agreement, counseling seems to be the only reasonable next step. He seems to think it is a waste of money and we need to figure this out on our own, but this clearly hasn’t happened.
What do I do? How do I convince him that counseling would help us sort out our feelings and give us better tools to argue without ruining several days on end? There are times when I feel so weary I want to throw in the towel, but I love him, and I made a vow for better or for worse.
A: It does not sound like your husband has actually changed anything! He might not want to go to counseling with you, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit around in a silent house for days on end every time the two of you have a disagreement. I think you should get counseling on your own. If nothing else, it will provide you with relief in dealing with your own feelings when your husband is giving you the silent treatment. Maybe this will help you figure out if there’s hope for the two of you.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. Don’t touch strangers, and I’ll see you again next week!