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.)
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. Do I have to visit an estranged, sick parent?: My father was diagnosed with cancer last year, and he has been refusing chemo in favor of some “alternative treatment” he found on the internet. When my siblings and I expressed some concerns about his approach, he basically stopped communicating with us because we weren’t supportive enough. We weren’t even informed recently when he ended up in the hospital for a week. His illness seems to be seriously progressing, and I don’t know how much time he has left. I live across the country, and I’m honestly not sure if I want to visit him while I have the chance. I’ve been thinking about my relationship with him and I don’t have any good, happy memories. He was a workaholic who was never around when I was really young. When I was a teenager, all he ever did was hit on my friends and complain about his relationship with my mom. And as an adult he only talks to me in order to lecture me about how awful every single life choice I’ve ever made is. I dread every interaction with him. I know he’s never going to apologize or say he’s sorry for being a bad parent, so I know I won’t get any closure. I have anxiety, and it’s worse than it’s been in a long time, in large part because he’s forcing my family to watch him slowly kill himself. If I have to sit through one of his self-righteous lectures about how I’m a giant failure, I will probably just fly off the handle and feel awful for weeks. I guess I’m not really asking if it’s OK not to visit an estranged dying relative—I’m not going to make myself do this if I can’t handle it. But if I decide not to, how can I deal with the inevitable criticism I’m going to get for my decision? I know people are going to treat me like a monster if I don’t.
A: You’re in an incredibly stressful situation, and I want to commend you for recognizing what you can and cannot do for your father. If you’re worried about criticism from acquaintances or people you don’t know very well, please know that you are under no obligation to share your decision with anyone. It’s more than OK to keep this decision confidential and to talk about it only with close friends or a therapist. If you fear hearing this from other family members, remember that you can always end a nonproductive conversation by saying, “This has been a painful decision, but my relationship with my father has never been healthy or supportive, and I cannot subject myself to further verbal abuse. He has not asked for me to visit him or expressed interest in reconnecting after he cut me off, and I think it’s best for both of us to keep our lives separate. You don’t have to agree with my choice, but I’m not comfortable discussing it further, and I ask that you respect my privacy.” You may not be able to convince everyone around you that you’re doing the right thing, but you don’t have to subject yourself to endless second-guessing from others, either.
Q. Why won’t you bang me?: I recently met a guy, and it was love at first sight. We have a lot in common, can spend hours talking, and find each other physically attractive. However, he seems completely uninterested in sex. We can spend the whole day kissing and cuddling, but he’s extremely reluctant to take it further and almost sees sex as a chore. Whenever I’ve tried talking to him about it, he comes up with an excuse, and I feel bad pestering him about it. I’m no Victoria’s Secret model, but getting guys to have sex with me has usually been the easiest part of a relationship, not the hardest. We’re both in our late 20s and grew up in liberal families in big cities so it’s not that he has conservative ideas about sex and relationships. One friend suggested he might be gay, but I find it hard to believe that someone from his background and circle of friends would stay closeted well into their late 20s. He’s spoken freely about previous relationships, and nothing seems out of the ordinary. What do you think could be up, and how can I approach it with him in a kind way?
A: He may be gay, he may have reasons for wanting to avoid or postpone sex he’s not yet comfortable sharing with you, he may be asexual, he may be interested in sleeping with you in the future but doesn’t feel ready now—there are a number of plausible reasons, but you don’t have sufficient information to speculate why he’s not having sex with you. You do, however, have sufficient information to make an informed decision about whether or not you want to continue seeing him. If you’d like a romantic relationship to include sex, tell him so and ask him if that’s what he wants too. If he prevaricates or offers further excuses, you can say, “I like you a lot, but I think we want different things, and I’m going to move on;” if he shares something with you that you believe you can work with, then you can proceed from there together.
Q. Should I feel bad for not feeling bad?: About four months ago my sister-in-law separated from her husband and moved out. Last week, she gave birth to her third child and a few days later her estranged husband died of a massive heart attack and stroke at the age of 27. The situation is indeed tragic, but I can’t bring myself to feel bad that he died. He was an abusive heroin addict who refused to get help and used his enabling family to harass and bully my sister. He was dragging out the divorce, causing my sister thousands in legal fees, bullying all of her friends and family into letting him take their kids and creating a massive smear campaign against my sister, making sure everyone on his side turned against her. He even attempted suicide, making sure to blame her in his suicide note. I’m actually really glad he’s dead, which I know sounds heartless, but my sister and her children will be so much better off without him in their lives. The rest of my husband’s family is posting all these loving venerating posts about him all over Facebook, and frankly it makes me very angry. Having lost my own sibling only a few years ago, I understand the grief and pain this kind of loss can bring. But elevating him to the level of a saint is not only dishonest, but makes my sister look like the bad guy in the whole situation. My question is this: Should I just keep my mouth shut and let people grieve how they will? Or should I speak up and remind them that just because my sister’s husband died doesn’t negate the abuse and torture he put my sister and her children through for years?
A: I can tell you unequivocally that nothing good will come out of telling this man’s grieving family that their son was a dangerous and unhealthy person, particularly on Facebook. While your complicated feelings of sympathy and anger and relief are understandable, telling your in-laws that everyone else’s lives will be improved by their son’s death will not make anything easier for your sister or her children. Let them grieve as they see fit, even if it’s through rose-colored glasses, and stop reading their eulogies on Facebook. Stop checking their entries on Facebook entirely! It is the official position of this column that everyone should press the mute on social media whenever they find themselves reading obsessively and unhelpfully. Focus on helping your sister-in-law during this difficult time. Even if her relationship with him was traumatic, it’s still going to be a huge adjustment going from having an antagonistic co-parent to no co-parent at all, and she’s going to need a lot of emotional and logistical support in the coming weeks and months. Make sure you’re in a position to offer her some.
Q. Sister mad at me—for getting pregnant: My sister and her husband have been struggling with fertility issues for a couple of years, and just last month they just found out she is pregnant! I am so happy for her and have already sent her a bunch of gifts. Well, last week I found out I am pregnant and now my sister won’t talk to me because she thinks I am trying to upstage her. My husband and I have been married three years, and while we haven’t really been trying, we have always just figured it would happen when it was meant to be. The timing is purely coincidence since we realized we couldn’t make a baby the way we were doing it, but my sister just won’t listen to reason. Her shower is next month, and I really don’t want it to be contentious and stressful since we are both pregnant! How can I help convince her to focus on her happiness and realize I am not trying to be the center of attention? Thanks
A: I have trouble imagining the mindset necessary to believe that another person would go to the trouble of creating a new life and committing to supporting a child financially, physically, and emotionally for at least the next 18 years, all for the purpose of “upstaging” the last few months of someone else’s pregnancy. It is not possible for a pregnancy to be upstaged; your sister is no less pregnant because you have acquired the same condition. You have not siphoned away or diminished a single iota of her happiness, and it’s unfortunate that she thinks having children is a zero-sum game. If she has refused to speak to you because you are going to have a baby, there is little you can do to convince her of her unreasonableness, only hope that in time she will come to her senses and apologize. You might tell her, “Sister, I’m so happy that you and your partner are having a baby, and I hope you can be happy for me too. I know it was difficult for you two to conceive and I’m thrilled that you’re going to be parents. I’m not trying to take anything away from you, and I still want to celebrate this new stage in your life and wish you every joy. I want having children close in age to bring us closer, for them to get to know one another and grow up together, and I hope you want that too.” If she continues to think of your pregnancy as a threat to her after that, all you can do is give her space and absolve yourself of responsibility for her happiness.
Q. 10-year-old daughter doesn’t want to visit friends: My wife and I live out in the country, and there are no children near where we live. Our 10-year-old daughter has friends at school and participates in other activities but shows no interest in visiting friends or having them visit her. I’ve offered to drive, but she declines. My wife grew up in the country and considers this normal, but she had a lot of siblings. I grew up in the suburbs and spent nearly every afternoon going to friends’ houses or having them over. Our daughter is well-adjusted, but she’s an only child, and I worry about her spending most evenings alone with her parents. Should I worry?
A: Worrying seems like a fairly natural state of being for a parent, so feel free to worry as much as you want, but I think you should reread your own letter. Here’s what jumped out at me: You say your daughter is well-adjusted, that she has friends at school, that she participates in extracurricular activities, and that your wife had a similar growing-up experience (and presumably turned out well). All in all, it sounds like your daughter is well and thriving. As long as you’re sure that she’s not hiding some unknown conflict with her peers, or suspect that she’s secretly unhappy, I think you can take your wife’s word that the situation is just fine. You can, of course, continue to occasionally encourage your daughter to have friends over or offer to drive her around, but don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong if she continues to decline.
Q. Family requests after coming out: I’m a queer woman in a long-term relationship with a trans man. My partner and I were waiting for the right time to come out to my conservative parents ... until someone outed my partner to my parents and I chose to be honest and upfront about my own sexual orientation, too. They were shocked and upset and now expect me to cater to their every request to “show them I care about keeping the family together.” These requests include driving two hours to visit them multiple times a week while they berate me about my choices, deleting all photos of my partner and me off social media, and not speaking publicly about LGBTQ issues. My brother, who has typically been an advocate for me, even suggested that I break up with my partner to make things easier on my parents. I know my parents are having a tough time with my coming out, but these visits are often emotionally taxing for me too. I want to reconcile our relationship, but how can I give them the support they need without sacrificing my own emotional health and well being?
A: You can’t, in no small part because what your parents are asking of you is not support but denial of the person you love. Reconciliation is not possible when one party asks the other to obliterate all signs of their relationship. Deleting pictures of your partner has nothing to do with “keeping the family together,” because being in love with a trans man is not a threat to your family’s continued existence. Your parents aren’t “having a tough time with your coming out.” Your parents are trying to force you back into the closet. Your parents are being cruel. It is fine for them to have feelings about your coming out, it is fine for them to seek therapy or to process their feelings on their own time; it is not fine for them to demand that you take near-daily road trips to be berated and hounded about the nature of your relationship. The most supportive thing you can do right now is to refuse to participate in another conversation that is predicated on the need to erase all signs of your partner. If that means you do not see your parents (or your brother), then that is the kindest thing you can do for everyone involved.
Q. Concerned or creeps?: My partner and I socialize with a retired neighborhood couple who are strident advocates for colo-rectal screening, and I’m over 50 and past due for my first. This couple is always on my case about when I’m gonna get my butt scoped. They took my partner in for his procedure a few years ago, and at the time I considered it a favor because I didn’t have to miss work. Since then, however, they’re always joking about things that my partner supposedly divulged following the procedure while still under the influence of anesthesia, yet they never reveal anything that was said. This has made me uncomfortable. And at our most recent get-together, after a few cocktails, the husband divulged that he had to dress my partner following the procedure because my partner was too loopy to dress himself. And they’re again bugging me about getting butt-scoped and insist that they should chaperone me as they’re retired and there’s no need for me to impose on others. Frankly, I’m squicked out. Is their interest in my butt scope creepy, or am I overreacting? And how do I let them know politely that I don’t want them seeing me naked or interrogating me while doped up on Versed?
A: One of the glorious things about being a person in the world is that you don’t have to worry about whether or not someone else is trying to be creepy. If you feel creeped out—if you’re simply uninterested in repeating a conversation you’ve had multiple times—then you get to say, “No,” full stop, without worrying that you’re overreacting or misunderstanding. Maybe they’re getting some prurient rush over accompanying their neighbors to colo-rectal screenings. Maybe they’re just medical busybodies or slightly overeager health enthusiasts. It doesn’t matter what’s driving them, what matters is that you’re sick of having this conversation. Tell them you appreciate their concern, that you’ve been more than adequately briefed on the importance of colonoscopies and that you’re going to make your own medical decisions, that you don’t need a ride to the doctor, and that you consider the matter closed. If they bring it up again, simply say, “I’ve mentioned before that I don’t want to continue discussing it,” and change the subject. If they try to revisit the subject, end the conversation and walk away.
You do not, by the way, ever have to politely tell someone that you don’t want them to see you naked and/or doped up, especially when they’re asking to do so in an inappropriate and insistent way. You just get to tell them you’re not interested.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for today. Let’s try to find our way back to one another next week.