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. Moving on: A few years ago, my little brother had an affair. He was eventually found out and, after an unsuccessful reconciliation attempt, filed for a divorce, which my sister-in-law fought tooth and nail. My brother is still involved in a relationship with “the other woman” and they are planning to take the next step. To be honest, I never liked his ex-wife. The “other woman” and I have a lot in common, and had we met in other circumstances, I am certain that we would be friends.
My mother absolutely refuses to entertain the idea of inviting her to family functions, and as a result, one round of Christmas and Thanksgiving have already been destroyed. My father has already passed away, my grandmas don’t have much time left and my little brother is the only other thing I have. I would really like to put the past behind us and move on—with the other woman—but my mom feels that there is a moral red line against ever including her in our lives. Help?
A: If nothing else, I’d like to encourage you to stop thinking of Christmas and Thanksgiving as fragile objets d’art that can be destroyed. They’re just holidays, and even if they’re important to you, they don’t take precedence over disagreements or conflict by some special, innate virtue. What you should bear in mind is that your relationship to your brother’s new partner does not have anything to do with how your mother feels about her. You’ve found common ground with this woman, decided you’re willing to make your peace with how they met, and feel like you’ve got so few family members you’re not willing to sacrifice your relationship with anyone else still living. That’s understandable, and fine, but if your mother doesn’t feel the same way, then that’s her prerogative. That may mean you’ll sometimes have to make difficult decisions about where to spend the holidays. You have every right to include your brother’s new partner in your own life, but you don’t have the right to force your mother to do the same. You can, of course, tell her why you’ve decided to accept your brother’s new relationship despite not approving of how it began, and encourage your mother to do the same, but if your mother decides to hold firm, let her.
Q. Living together: I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost a year. While we both admit that we aren’t ready to live together, I have a secret. ZERO percent of me wants to live with him and I don’t foresee that changing. I know there isn’t any kind of timeline for a relationship, but if I have no interest in living with him, should I let him go? I love him and care about him intensely, but I also love living on my own and not co-habitating. We have actually talked about this and agreed that we are both happy with the current situation, so that’s great, but he doesn’t know that I have absolutely no interest in living with him. Should I at least tell him that much? I’m afraid it will hurt his feelings.
A: I promise you, there is absolutely no outcome that does not hurt his feelings at some point, so give up on that dream. The truth will out, in one form or another. You’ll either have to tell him if he starts pressing to move in together, or you’ll break up with him, or (worst of all) you’ll let him talk you into living together and grow miserable. Don’t dump him pre-emptively, but absolutely, tell him now. “We talked about this earlier, and I’m really glad we’re on the same page right now, but I’ve thought about this a lot, and something I’ve come to know about myself is that I don’t ever want to move in with a partner. I love you and I’m incredibly happy in our relationship, but you should know that if we stay together, it will have to be in separate houses. I want to be able to talk about this, and I realize this may come as a surprise to you, but it’s really important to me, and I’d rather you know now, rather than wait until something forces the issue.” If he’s OK with it, great! If you two ultimately break up over it, it’s so much better to do it now than to try to hide it and let it all come out later. This is not a secret worth keeping.
Q. Present etiquette: I was supposed to be getting married this weekend, but 10 days ago my fiancée called it off saying, “It wasn’t right.” This was a huge blow, of course, and I’m still struggling with it. My problem is that once it was announced I was inundated with messages from people asking about their gifts. I get that they want their gifts back, and I’m going to return everything. But I really need some space here just for a few days until I can get to a better place. Is it rude to put out a message on social media just saying that?
A: At this point, I’m tempted to tell you to keep the gifts; I cannot imagine the kind of people (more than one, apparently!) who hear their friend has been jilted and whose initial response is, “When am I getting that Le Creuset back, then?” That is some unmitigated dirtbaggery, and I’m so sorry.
Yes, you can absolutely send out a general announcement to let people know that you’ll return their gifts once you’ve had a little more time to process this loss. Feel free to send a generic script in return to future boorish inquiries—“Thanks for checking in. As you might imagine, this is a very painful time for me, and I’m trying to focus on taking care of myself as well as handling the many details involved in calling off a wedding. I will be returning gifts to everyone who sent them over the next few months, and appreciate your patience as I do so.” I hope there are at least a few people in your life who are offering you support during this profoundly destabilizing time, and who are willing to help you with the logistics of canceling the wedding and sending everyone’s gifts back.
Q. Graduation and divorced parents: My parents are divorced—divorced in the sense that putting them in close proximity is asking for a massacre. My graduation is coming up, and my university limits us to two tickets. There isn’t enough space to have both my parents and their respective partners at the ceremony, and for obvious reasons I don’t want to have them in there alone. I’m tempted to only have my sister at the ceremony, and meet them for separate dinners later. How do I address this without being torn apart by hungry parental wolves?
A: Your temptation is, in fact, a great idea: Have only your sister at the ceremony, and arrange separate celebrations with your parents afterward. If they’re not capable of seeing one another in public and behaving themselves, you should not feel responsible for their bad behavior—or like you have anything to apologize for by refusing to host one of their bloodbaths during a time that’s supposed to be about celebrating your accomplishments.
Q. How to get rid of an inflammatory artifact: I recently helped my grandmother clean out her attic in preparation for a move and discovered that my grandfather had brought home some souvenirs from his time fighting in Europe during World War II. One of these souvenirs is a Nazi armband, and while I don’t want to keep or sell it, I also don’t feel comfortable throwing it away. Is there any alternative? I feel like a creep for even having it.
A: As Indiana Jones would say: “It belongs in a museum.” (Or a research center or historical society.) Find one that’s accepting artifacts from that particular era and ask them to appraise the historical value of your grandfather’s souvenir (it may not be in display condition), then donate it.
Q. Boyfriend gifts: My boyfriend has chronic acne that mainly affects his back and occasionally crops up elsewhere. He’s seen dermatologists but hasn’t been keen on the side effects of the treatments. I know it bothers him on some level, but it’s never grossed me out. My question is, is it appropriate to get him personal care products? Sometimes I see things or hear about things that would be great for his skin—cleansers from Sephora, spot treatments at Lush, etc. I wouldn’t think twice about getting personal care things for girlfriends, but am I sending him the message “your skin bothers me and you should fix it”? He’s not the type of person to buy those things for himself—it took me a year to get him to wear sunscreen. I think it’s thoughtful, but I don’t know how he’d take it.
A: Ask him! (As a general rule, if you want to buy a gift for someone, but you’re not sure if they’d welcome it, you should ask.) Sometimes people with chronic acne get inundated with recommendations for products they’re already familiar with from well-meaning friends and family, and that can be exhausting. Your boyfriend may have tried some of these products and found they haven’t worked for him (he may have the kind of acne that doesn’t respond to the sort of medication found in over-the-counter treatments), or he may genuinely be unaware of them, and might welcome giving them a try. The only way to find out is to ask. “I saw a few cleansers/spot treatments/whatever today that I thought might feel good on your skin, but I wanted to ask before I bought you anything. I don’t want to get them for you if you’re not interested, but if you’d like to try them, I’d love to show you some of them.” Chronic cystic acne can be painful—stress that these products are soothing and anti-inflammatory not some miracle cure that’s going to grant him clear skin overnight. If he seems interested, go for it!
Q. Re: How to get rid of an inflammatory artifact: No reputable museum employee will appraise an artifact. It’s a violation of their code of ethics. They usually can recommend an appraiser, but the donor will most likely have to pay for the appraisal.
A: I’m sorry, that was a bad word choice on my part! I meant “appraise” in the sense of “determining whether this is museum-quality and able to be displayed in a collection,” not (as it’s usually used) to mean “determining its financial value.” They can evaluate it, let’s say.
Q. Daughter’s disappointment: As a result of my spouse’s job, we have had to move multiple times in the past couple of years, even across the country. These moves have been particularly hard on our daughter, who is age 10. Having to each time settle into a new school, make new friends, and then having to do it all over again in a few months has been a challenge. The last time we moved, a teacher shared her address with her and offered to be her pen pal. Our daughter was thrilled, but unfortunately the card on which the address was written was packed with a bunch of other stuff and we assumed it was lost. When she found it a few months later after we retrieved our belongings from storage, she wrote to the teacher, including the reason why she was writing to her after a few months, the fact the she had assumed the address was lost, etc. Unfortunately the teacher has not responded (its been about three months) and our daughter is crushed, thinking perhaps the teacher did not believe her. I have been wondering, was there anything I could have done, like including a note from myself as well, in that same letter? Just wanted to get your perspective.
A: There is nothing you could have done. It’s possible your daughter’s letter (or her former teacher’s response) got lost in the mail; it’s possible her pen pal has been meaning to respond for a while now and keeps letting it slip her mind; it’s possible she has since moved herself; it’s possible she made a casual promise she didn’t really intend to keep to a little girl. None of those things are within your control. It is of course understandable that you want to protect your daughter’s feelings, which are especially fragile right now, and wonder if there was anything you could have done to spare her from this particular disappointment. But there wasn’t. All you can do now is be there for your daughter. You can’t take away this disappointment (or prevent ones in future), but you can teach her that she has a loving parent who’s willing to listen and be there for her when she gets let down.
Q. What’s in a name?: I’m a 25-year-old woman and I’ve recently decided that I’m ready to get back into dating after almost three years of being single. Because I want to be proactive, I signed up for a couple of casual dating sites. I hit it off with one guy and we’ve gone on a few dates. There’s just one (silly-sounding) problem—I hate his name! It’s a name I’ve only ever heard used for someone over 70 (think “Mervyn” or “Maynard”) and I’m embarrassed to say his name to a couple of friends who have asked. I know this is a shallow-sounding problem, but since we aren’t serious yet and I’m still more or less in the dating “vetting” process (and still going on other dates with other people), I can’t deny that it’s bothering me! I’m wondering if it would be offensive to ask him if I can come up with a nickname or any more modern-sounding moniker that I can call him? He doesn’t appear to have any existing nicknames, and he said his name is a family one. If this is bothering me at this stage, is it a deal-breaker?
A: Some people love getting nicknamed, but it would give me more than a little pause if someone I had just started seeing told me, “I don’t like your name. Let me call you something else,” no matter how they tried to soften it or dress it up. You’re not talking about a casual, spontaneous nickname either; you’re talking about disliking the name he uses every day. He’s never expressed any dissatisfaction with his own name, so it would be a little presumptuous to try to see if he’s amenable to being called something else entirely, especially since he has never said, “I hate going by Mervyn, please call me Matt.” If it bothers you that much, go out with someone else; if you like him enough that you think you’re willing to overlook it, find a different way to think about it. If absolutely nothing else, this is the name that represents someone you really like—that’s at least one point in its favor.
Mallory Ortberg: Small world, Dr. Jones. Too small for the two of us; this is the second time I’ve had to reclaim my property from you. See you all next week!