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. Blackmailed husband: While I was traveling recently, my husband started chatting with another woman, which eventually led to him sending a nude pic of himself. The woman had asked him to download an app that essentially stole all his phone contacts. She told him to send money and threatened to send his picture to his contacts if he didn’t comply. He reported this to the police, and the next day she sent his photo to several people, including my mother and his boss. He is completely humiliated and in shock. I know he is a victim here, and I want to support him, but a part of me is livid that he got involved in an intimate chat with a strange woman online. I feel like he cheated on me, even if there was no physical contact involved. It is hard to describe how betrayed I feel, but I can’t talk to him about it while he is dealing with such a public humiliation. How do we deal with this in our marriage? Do I let it go, demand counseling—what?
A: I can’t imagine why on earth you’d want to let this go. This was an upsetting and humiliating private experience turned public, and both you and your husband ought to seek counseling to deal with the fallout from his blackmail. You have every right to feel angry and betrayed, and there’s no reason that you should let your feelings go just because your husband has been publicly embarrassed. Your desire to present a united front is admirable, but that doesn’t mean you have to swallow your own feelings in private.
Q. Too much pussy?: My girlfriend and I live together. For financial reasons, neither of us can move out. I knew she had a cat, and I had allergies, but they’ve always been manageable in the short term. I’ve never had cats long term before. Now there are two rescue cats, and I can’t take it anymore. Medications aren’t working, allergy shots aren’t an option, but there also aren’t any animal shelters in my Central American country of residence. I believe pets are a lifelong commitment, and I feel terrible about asking my girlfriend to get rid of her cats, but my health is suffering and I don’t know what else to do. My girlfriend doesn’t seem to have an opinion either way (we’ve talked about it with no conclusion). What should we do?
A: If your girlfriend doesn’t have an opinion either way, go ahead and find another home for her cats! There’s nothing wrong with finding a different living situation for them if your own health is suffering. You’ve done your best to make reasonable accommodations, and nothing’s worked; you don’t have to spend the next 10 years gasping for breath and blinking back tears just because you think you’re under a lifelong obligation to your girlfriend’s pets. You’ll all be happier for it.
Q. Am I a jerk to my co-worker?: I have a co-worker who simply isn’t cut out for our job. It is my job to edit his work product. It should be nearly perfect by the time it gets to me, and I just proofread and finalize. Each time he submits his work, it takes several hours—sometimes an entire day—to fix it. This has been going on for a year now, and I have tried numerous times to help him. I have given him highlighted hard copies with notes and tracked changes versions of his documents with explanations of why we do things one way instead of his way. I employ the sandwich method (a nice comment—constructive criticism—a nice “thanks for your work!”). I have made myself available for assistance and questions. Truly nothing has worked, and I am almost losing my mind, because correcting his work has negatively impacted my life in concrete ways. I have to skip workouts because I am trying to fix his crap work under tight deadlines. I work until midnight fixing his stuff and wake up at 5 so I can get to work before 7 to do my own work. Here’s the real issue: His partner is sick and unemployed but ineligible for disability (his poor performance long predates this situation). I am worried that if I tell our bosses the extent of his failures, he will get fired. But deep down, I want and need him to get fired, because he has shown himself incapable of improving. I need sleep, I need a good run, I need to do laundry, and I need to focus on my own work. Basically, I am asking you to tell me that I am not a total jerk for doing my job and informing my bosses that this guy just isn’t cutting it, despite the fact that he is in a tough personal situation. What do you think I should do?
A: You’ve been enormously kind to your co-worker. You’ve gone out of your way to help your co-worker improve his job performance. You’ve neglected your personal life in order to bail out your co-worker, and throwing yourself off the brink of despair isn’t going to help anyone. I think you can tell your bosses about how untenable the current state of affairs is without feeling as if you’re responsible for your co-worker losing his job. If there’s additional training or support that might make the difference, your bosses will be better able than you to determine how to help him improve. If the time comes to let him go, it will be better for him in the long run to find a job he’s capable of doing, rather than hoping one of his colleagues will carry him upon their shoulders indefinitely.
Surely you don’t think you can cover up his mistakes for the rest of your life. Have an honest conversation with your superiors about what you’ve been doing, and how you can no longer continue at this pace. You’re not asking them to fire him—you’re giving them an honest assessment of the current situation, so that they can make an informed decision about what to do next. If your bosses aren’t already aware of your co-worker’s sick partner, trust that he will fill them in when they start having a conversation about his performance. He will be the best advocate for himself. You can be supportive and compassionate toward him without feeling that you must act as his champion. Take care of yourself, and let yourself do laundry and go to bed on time again.
Q. Peanut butter: My boyfriend and I have lived together for three years. We buy “natural” peanut butter. Both of us used to stir the new peanut butter jars, but earlier this year he asked that he be the one to do it always. I am messier, and he doesn’t like how much oil I pour out. It’s fine with me for him to do it. However, he’s forgetful and procrastinates often. He eats peanut butter every morning and hates when he forgets to stir a new jar the night before. My question is this: If there’s only one serving of peanut butter left in the jar, should I leave it for him?
A: Buy separate peanut butter jars.
Q. Husband’s inappropriate jokes: Please don’t judge—my husband came home early unexpectedly one afternoon, and my boyfriend went out of the window through the balcony to try to make an exit. He ended up falling from the apartment and was hospitalized. My boyfriend also has a wife, and I have no idea what his medical progress is or what is happening with him. The story made local news—about a naked man falling out of the apartment and injuring himself. My husband, who thinks it happened from a neighbor’s apartment, keeps making vile jokes about the incident (his sense of humor is usually quite dark). It is like a fresh knife through my heart each time I hear him casually joke about my injured boyfriend. I have asked him to stop, but he thinks it’s hilarious. He has told his friends and family about it with me within earshot. I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this, but it hurts a lot, not to mention that I can’t believe my husband makes light of another man’s serious accident. What’s a subtle way to get him to stop?
A: My God, of course I’m going to judge you. What a strange request. It is perhaps a little bit difficult to believe that an ambulance (and presumably police officers asking questions) could have showed up at your apartment while your husband was at home without his coming to suspect anything, but life is a rich tapestry, and stranger things have happened. Your boyfriend was seriously injured as a direct result of the choices the two of you made, and you think your problem is your husband’s off-color jokes. Subtlety is not the answer to your current problems. The first way to get your husband to stop cracking jokes is to come clean and take responsibility, although I realize that’s unlikely—if you felt like you managed to get away with your secret with first responders at your door, I hardly think a lesser inducement will convince you to start talking.
I’m not especially sympathetic to the “fresh knife through [your] heart” when your boyfriend was hospitalized in an attempt to cover up your affair. If the worst thing you have to suffer over the next few weeks are some uncomfortably close-to-home remarks, count yourself lucky. At least you’re not the one in traction. If your hope is simply to keep your head down and go back to life as it once was after your boyfriend nearly died to keep your secret, I think you are seeking a return to the status quo at the expense of honesty, commitment, and courage.
Q. Daughter wants late-term abortion: My daughter left her husband, and now wants to abort what had been a wanted pregnancy. She is too far along to terminate in our state, but she could get it done elsewhere. She asked me for money, to cover transportation and the procedure itself. My daughter says that she can’t have a child with her soon-to-be-ex and that he would block an adoption. This devastates me. I thought I was pro-choice, but everything in me screams that this is wrong. But my daughter said that if I don’t help her, she’ll have to find “some other way,” and I’m afraid of what that might mean. Also, my husband doesn’t yet know that our daughter wants to abort, but he would be even more devastated than I am. Should I help my daughter do this, or not?
A: Being pro-choice doesn’t mean the specifics of every single abortion fills you with joy; being pro-choice simply means you believe the only person who should decide whether or not a woman should carry her pregnancy to term is the woman in question. It’s understandable that you might grieve the loss of what you hoped would be your grandchild, but you need to deal with your emotions about this on your own, and not use your sadness as a reason to pressure your daughter into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. Your daughter was happy to have a child in a stable partnership under certain conditions but doesn’t feel equipped to have one by herself in the middle of a divorce and is determined to have an abortion. She’s going to get an abortion no matter how you feel about it. You can either make having one more difficult for her, or you can help. That choice, at least, is yours alone.
Q. Friends’ weight comments: I’m a curvy young woman who has had surprisingly little of my own issues with how I look and my own sense of worth. That being said, what can I say to my friends when they complain about “being fat and ugly?” One of them is MAYBE 15 pounds overweight, and another went up several dress sizes in about a year because of medications, surgeries, and the “freshman 15.” When I bring up the fact that I have at least 50 pounds on the former and am roughly the same size as the latter, they assure me that I’m beautiful, etc. When I ask why it applies to me but not to them, they drop the subject … until the next time. I don’t think they are trying to undermine my own confidence, but they seem confused/jealous that, despite my weight, I am the first of us married with a child. They both conclude that they are too ugly for love. I’m at a loss on how to combat the social “standard” that only a certain kind of woman is beautiful and worthy. Any advice?
A: I think it’s a mistake to assume that your friends’ low self-esteem is somehow a criticism of your appearance. They don’t sound like they’re trying to subtly undermine you so much as they appear to have distorted views of their bodies and are full of self-loathing. Repeatedly pointing out that you’re heavier than them won’t make them feel any less unattractive if what they’re dealing with is recent, sudden weight gain after a year of difficult medical interventions or constant feelings of self-hatred. They genuinely don’t think it applies to you because they aren’t thinking about you. While you’re certainly within your rights to say something when they start in again with negative chatter about how ugly/hopeless/fat/unattractive they are, I think you should stop taking it personally and start thinking of it as an issue that your friends have to deal with on their own.
Mallory Ortberg: A big day for feelings! See you next week.