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 voice mail 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.
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, folks! Let’s chat.
Q. Tattoo for a dying marriage: My husband and I have been married for eight years. We’ve never been really happy, and we’ve been in and out of counseling a few times. I want to get a divorce, and I am working to get everything in order financially so I can leave. We don’t have kids, so that isn’t an issue. The problem is that I’m not financially ready yet to leave, and our anniversary is coming up. My husband thinks we should get matching tattoos to prove our commitment to each other. Obviously, I don’t want to do this. But how can I say no without telling him that I’m actually planning to leave him in about six months?
A: There are plenty of reasons not to get matching tattoos besides I’m secretly planning to leave you; eight years is not the “matching tattoo” anniversary, and people who decline to get joint tattoos with their spouses within the first decade of marriage are still welcomed in all arenas of society. You can tell him that you don’t like the idea, that you’ve changed your mind if you suggested you were open to it in the past, that you don’t think a tattoo is a good way to mark a commitment, that you think matching couple tattoos look bad on other people—whatever you like. Even if your husband considers the tattoos the only way to “prove” your commitment to the marriage (which is a ridiculous proposition), you don’t have to engage with him on those terms.
Q. Friend wants her teenage years: I’m really worried about my friend “Laura.” Laura grew up in a conservative community and married at 18. Her husband was a family friend, and she didn’t date anybody but him. After their marriage, she went to college, had two kids, and has now divorced her husband. She has broken away from her family because she says they judge her and she is intent on living her own life. I’d be good with that if it weren’t for the fact that she thinks living her own life is doing whatever she wants regardless of the consequences. Laura goes out to bars three to four nights a week. She would leave her kids (both under age 10) home alone. The authorities were called numerous times, and now her ex-husband has custody. Laura alternates between blaming her ex for this or saying she doesn’t care because the kids kept her from doing what she wants. Over the past six months Laura has been arrested three times. She’s moved two different men into her house in that same time. One stole everything he could carry before he left. The other left when his wife came and got him. Last week Laura lost her very well-paying job because a lot of this behavior was seeping into her work life. I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried talking to her, but she insists she doesn’t have a problem. She says that all she is doing is acting like a normal teenager and since she was robbed of that during her teen years, she wants it now. Is this something she is just going to have to get through on her own?
A: None of this sounds particularly like “normal” teen behavior, and I’m not especially sympathetic to the argument that because someone had what she judged an insufficiently wild youth, she is now entitled to re-enact that time in adulthood, especially when that re-enactment involves serious child neglect. Finding yourself is one thing; multiple arrests and child abandonment is quite another. While your friend is likely going to have to deal with the fallout from her actions for a long time, you don’t have to indulge her assertion that what she’s doing is a normal consequence of having gotten married young. If she’s willing to admit she needs help, you might be able to assist her, but if what she’s looking for is someone to co-sign her illegal and negligent behavior, don’t volunteer.
Q. “Just say no” woman dating a pot-smoking guy: I’ve started seeing a guy I really like and have a lot in common with. The catch is he smokes pot regularly, and I am a holdover from the “just say no” era. I’ve mentioned I’m not comfortable with it, and he agreed not to smoke around me or get high before we hang out. Before deciding if this is a deal-breaker, what can I do to challenge my beliefs? Am I as outdated as I think I might be?
A: I don’t know if you’re interested in learning more about weed smoking and re-examining your beliefs about it because you’re genuinely not sure why you still hold said beliefs or if you’re looking for a way to pretend it doesn’t bother you because you really like this guy and don’t want to seem like a buzzkill. If it’s the former, try doing some research (there are plenty of resources online that can elucidate the virtues of marijuana, I promise—plenty of them reputable, even) or speaking with the growers at your local dispensary, if you have one. You might even ask this dude to tell you more about his experience smoking weed, what he likes about it, and what benefits he experiences.
If, however, as I suspect, you are looking for ways to convince yourself you don’t mind something you actually do just because you like this guy, I don’t think you should worry too much about “challenging your beliefs.” He’s not just an occasional smoker; he gets high regularly, and the promise he’s made to never be or get high around you is one that is only going to get more difficult if you two start seeing each other regularly. This might not be a workable compromise if you’re genuinely uncomfortable being around someone who’s high. Weed can be great for some people, some of the time! It’s also not a cure-all, and it’s not right for everybody. It’s also perfectly OK to not like weed or its effects and to not want to date someone who smokes it regularly.
Your attitude isn’t necessarily “outdated” in part because weed isn’t new; attitudes and certain legal prohibitions have changed drastically in parts of this country over the past 25 years, but that doesn’t mean that people who don’t like weed are going to have to start dating stoners or else be judged stone-age relics. Think about what you’re really looking for in a partner—not what you think you should be looking for out of fear of being uptight—and be honest about it. If that could potentially include this guy, great, go for it. If you don’t think it does, look elsewhere. It doesn’t mean either of you is wrong, just that you two aren’t right for each other.
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Q. Not my dogs: My husband took in his adult daughter’s two dogs for a week while she was moving—not a problem. Then my stepdaughter’s living situation changed, and she is now rooming with people who don’t allow pets. I warned my husband that I wasn’t going to live with these animals past spring. Either my stepdaughter would take responsibly, or he would. She cried, he caved, and now we are fighting. I work 60-hour weeks. I did not assume pet responsibility when my son was 6; I am not doing it for my grown husband. He wants me to feed, walk, and clean up after the dogs on my lunch break since I work closer. I refused, and he had to hire someone. He doesn’t like the animals and hates walking them after work. They have ruined the rug in his office and the door to the backyard. He complains to me, and I tell him I don’t want to hear it. He went against my wishes here and knows what I think he should do. My question is: How do I get through to him? He is grumpy all the time.
A: Good on you for sticking to your original limits. Your husband’s decision is just that—his decision—and you’ve been clear from the start that you’re not interested in becoming a long-term pet owner and that he and his daughter need to work together to make alternate arrangements for these dogs. She’s an adult and the one who decided to get the dogs in the first place. If she’s no longer able to keep them with her, then she should be working with him in looking for a long-term solution. When your husband tries to complain to you, say, “I’m sorry this situation is so difficult for you, but you made a choice, and you and your daughter need to figure out appropriate next steps if taking care of these dogs is getting to be too much for you. Let me know if you need help finding resources in rehoming them, and I’ll be happy to help; otherwise, let’s talk about something else.”
Q. Re: Not my dogs: This is when you view your husband as you would a child having a tantrum. Cheerfully, matter-of-factly validate and hold the boundary: “I know it’s a lot of work, which is why I told you I wouldn’t take the dogs after spring. If you’re finding it too much of a burden, then tell your daughter.” Don’t use a judgmental tone; just keep a cheerful, matter-of-fact manner no matter what he says.
A: Lovely. (It probably won’t work to view your partner as a child in most arguments, but in this instance, I think the approach is sound.)
Q. Boyfriend secretly allows female overnight guest: While I was out of town, my boyfriend let a female friend sleep over on the couch in our apartment and purposely didn’t tell me. I found out, and his excuse was that he knew I would be upset if I had known. I know that nothing happened, but I think it’s very inappropriate to have a female overnight guest in our apartment, especially because they have slept together in the past. He also messaged her weeks later to say that he had been tempted to make a move on her. It’s also important to note that prior to my leaving town, we discussed that it would not be a good idea for him to even hang out with her (in a group setting with mutual friends), since I know about the past they’ve shared, and he’s lied about her before. Not only did he hang out with her, but then she slept over. I feel completely betrayed. Do I have a right to be?
A: Yes. I’m not necessarily on board with the “no female overnight guests in the apartment” policy as a general rule, but then again, I’m not in a relationship with you. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask your boyfriend not to host a former lover on your couch while you’re out of town, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be hurt and angry now that he did it and lied to you about it just to avoid a fight (and not for the first time). You two get to have a fight now, about boundaries and honesty and what expectations seem reasonable to you both and whether or not there is any trust left in this relationship. I suspect there’s been a breakdown on both sides, because something tells me your boyfriend did not show you this message he sent his friend. However, you found out, and you can’t unknow what you know now, which is that your boyfriend is sending at least preliminary signs of interest in cheating on you to other women. Decide whether or not you consider this relationship salvageable, and act accordingly.
Q. Toying with time: When is it appropriate to introduce sex toys? I’m a bisexual woman in my 20s with a long-term health issue, for which I am prescribed a combination of medications that make it difficult to orgasm. For being alive, this is a trade-off I’m willing to make. Recently, my specialist and I adjusted my medication, and I have improved! I’m now able to orgasm, but only with the help of a vibrator. My question is: When is it appropriate to introduce a toy into the bedroom? I enjoy dating but can’t figure out the balance of when it’s appropriate to bring in toys with a new partner. I don’t want men to feel weirded out, but at the same time, I want to come too! (Lady-type partners take it in stride, so I have no problems there.)
A: It is appropriate to introduce sex toys the first time you have sex with a new partner, if that’s what works for you. If you tell potential partners that, due to your health issues, you can only orgasm with a vibrator, and their response is anything less than a full-throated, “Then bring on the vibrators!” they are not likely to be good sexual matches for you, and you should gently release them back into the sea.
Q. Have I given him too much time?: I’ve been officially dating my boyfriend for a little over a year, but we had an on again–off again relationship that was more physical for a year before that. This past year has been good, but we still haven’t exchanged “I love yous.” Nor have we really ever discussed the future. I told him in January that this was beginning to be a huge problem for me, and he did a good job of being more supportive, kind, and aware of his actions. But he still hasn’t said the L-word. Am I being foolish to stay with him when neither of us can find the courage to discuss the future and how we feel?
A: Some people aren’t especially invested in hearing the words I love you as long as their partners express affection and care in other ways; others could have the kindest, most devoted and loving partner alive and still need to hear them say it out loud. If it’s a problem for you, it doesn’t matter how kind he is otherwise. You’re not foolish for staying with this guy, but you know the conversation you need to have with him. If you love him (and I don’t think you’d be writing to me if you didn’t), then tell him so, since it sounds like you also have yet to say, “I love you.” If you want to discuss the future with him, then begin by acknowledging your own fears—that you’re worried you two don’t want the same things, that you’ll have to break up at the end of it, or that this conversation is somehow less worth having if you initiate it rather than him. Think about what you want, and tell him what that is, without apology or demand. You’re simply gathering information to see if the two of you are compatible in the long term, not trying to interrogate him. If he’s not able to articulate any sort of vision of the future for himself or any coherent sense of his feelings for you, then you likely have your answer. If, on the other hand, you two are able to find some common ground, then you might find once you’ve mustered the courage to have that first difficult conversation about feelings, future conversations about them will come all the easier.