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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the new 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: Here’s hoping every wedding you all attended in the past week featured a bare minimum of surprise proposals from upstage-happy guests. Let’s chat!
Q. Worried about husband’s career ambitions: My husband, “Jack,” and I are having a disagreement about his career path. We both found great jobs right out of graduate school, his even better than mine, at a highly prized firm in his field. The pay was phenomenal, and Jack seemed to thrive in the high-pressure environment, until he was put on a project that had started to slip and was ordered to rescue it at all costs. He did it, but the costs were very high: 70-hour workweeks, midnight phone calls, working through holidays, you name it. After seeing it through, he was instructed to fire the original manager of the project who had been working for him up until then. Jack balked, it got ugly, and he ended up leaving through mutual agreement with a nice severance package. He then took what I thought was a “breather” position at about half his former salary. Fine, he needed a break, and we could certainly cope with the temporary drop in income. Two years later, after pushing him to look for better opportunities, Jack informs me that he’s determined to stay where he is and has no interest in ever going back to the other kind of job. This will severely change the plans we made for our life together—the kind of home we’ll have, what neighborhood we’ll live in, the schools our (eventual) kids will go to, everything. Also, I will always have to be the main breadwinner. If this is what Jack needs, I love him enough to adjust, but I think he’s suffering a sort of PTSD and should seek therapy before he gives up the dreams he had before. He doesn’t see it that way, and we’ve been fighting about it a lot. Am I right that therapy is warranted, or am I just being “mercenary” as he says? By the way, we’re both men, so this isn’t some sexist calculation about who should bring home the bacon.
A: I want to gently encourage you to take another look at what you’re proposing your husband do: “Honey, your last job was so demanding, so all-encompassing, so determined to destroy any semblance of a work-life balance that I think you developed PTSD—so I want you to go to therapy until you can go back to the source of that initial trauma and start all over again.” It’s clear from your letter that you love your husband, and I’m not suggesting you don’t care about his well-being, but if some version of a post-traumatic stress response is holding him back from returning to the type of job he had before, then that’s a good thing, because it’s protecting him from further harm.
That doesn’t mean you two can’t have continued discussion about what other types of jobs are available to him, or your respective financial and career goals, or even to disagree about those issues! But I think you should listen to your husband when he says he can’t ever go back to that type of work and let go of the idea that he “seemed to thrive” in the high-pressure environment before that one project came along. This is an opportunity for you to ask a lot of questions: What was hardest for him about that job? What does he like about the work he does now? How many hours a week is too many for him? What type of lifestyle feels “good enough” for him, and what is he willing (and not willing) to sacrifice in order to get it? I don’t think you’re necessarily being mercenary, but I think you’re not listening to what your husband is telling you. He won’t go back to that type of work even if it means taking a serious pay cut, because no amount of money is worth his health and sanity. Pay attention to that.
Q. Stolen kitchen dreams: I’ve always loved cooking and design, so when I told my best friend about my dream stove, she must have known I really had a special place in my heart for it. Imagine my surprise when I found out SHE had bought my dream stove before I could save up for it! Needless to say, I felt incredibly betrayed. I’ve basically been giving her the silent treatment for the better part of a year. To make matters worse, she acts like she has no idea why I’m so mad at her! My anger and hurt have gotten so bad that our friends called a meeting for us to talk it out, but I don’t want to hear anything from her unless it’s an apology. What should I do?
A: I don’t often find myself wishing that a letter were fake, but I sure hope you’re just some bored internet denizen inventing dramatic stove-related scenarios to entertain yourself. I’m not surprised your friend has no idea why you’ve grown so cold and distant. If one of my best friends suddenly gave me the silent treatment for almost an entire year, the type of stove I had recently purchased would not even make the top 100 possible reasons why. It would fall below “She has been possessed by the evil spirit Aku from Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack” in terms of plausibility.
Your friend has purchased a stove. That is the only thing that has happened in this story. She has not deprived you of your ability to purchase an identical stove in the future. She has not taken the stove that is currently in your kitchen out of your home. You are still able to cook and design things to your heart’s content and have not been harmed in any way. This is straight-up Dr. Zoidberg “this is bad and you should feel bad” territory. You are being extremely unkind for extremely silly reasons and should immediately apologize and amend your behavior. If she forgives you, count yourself extremely lucky.
Q. Unpleasant surprise: My in-laws are planning their yearly visit for my husband’s birthday. My mother-in-law called me up on Friday and told me that she was planning a surprise for him and needed my help with it. When pressed for details, she told me that my sister-in-law was coming with them. My husband hates his sister and hasn’t spoken to her in almost 20 years. She has issues with drugs, she’s a pathological liar and a thief, and the last time she spoke with my husband she told him I was a whore and he needed to get a DNA test done on my son or she would never accept him. He hasn’t spoken to her since that day and never plans to again. When I told my mother-in-law her coming was not going to be a good idea, she told me it was too late and the arrangements (airfare/hotel) had already been made. I sat on this for two days before going to my husband. I had to tell him because I knew that this was not going to be a nice surprise since he has told his mother repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with his sister and to stop forcing a relationship with her. As I suspected, he was very upset and called his parents and told them not to come. His father called me the next day yelling and screaming and telling me that it is my fault that the trip was ruined and all I had to do was keep my mouth shut. My husband claims that I didn’t do anything wrong and if he was in that same position he would have done what I did. Was I wrong to tell him? How do I repair my relationship with his parents?
A: You were not wrong to tell him. There is nothing you can do to repair your relationship with his parents. They can apologize—for going directly against your husband’s wishes, asking you to keep a secret from your husband despite knowing it would upset him if he knew, and screaming at you—whenever they feel ready.
Q. Can I change his heart?: I’ve been with my husband for almost 10 years, and we got married a little more than three years ago. During our dating years, he displayed small bits of racism here and there (such as using slurs against Asian people), but I overlooked it, which I guess was a mistake. After getting married, he has slowly become even more racist and now is pretty much a white supremacist. He hung a Nazi flag in our apartment, and when I objected, told me that I’ve been “brainwashed by the Jews.” When I took down the flag, he became very agitated and told me that he’d leave me if I kept it up. I am completely disgusted by the man I am married to, and I really don’t know what to do. This is not OK at all. Is this the end of my marriage? Is there anything I can do to change his heart?
A: It does not sound like you have been able to meaningfully change this guy’s heart in the more than 10 years you have been together. If you say, “I do not want to fly a Nazi flag in our home,” and his response is, “Then I’ll leave you,” then your marriage is already at an end. He’s not “pretty much” a white supremacist. He meets all the necessary terms and conditions for membership. He is a white supremacist, full stop. Something you do have the power to change, in the future, is your response to “small bits of racism.” If someone you’re dating, or someone you work with, or one of your friends uses slurs to refer to various ethnic groups, don’t overlook it. You can’t un-Nazi your husband, but you can make sure that you don’t spend another 10 years trying to pretend someone else’s racism “isn’t that bad.”
Q. Re: Stolen kitchen dreams: Dear Cook, “I broke up with my best friend because she bought a stove.” Read that out loud and you will see how ridiculous it sounds. I put this in the same category as those who complain that their friend/relative/neighbor “stole” the baby name they were planning to use someday.
A: This is way pettier, frankly! I’m generally of the opinion that it is impossible to “steal” a baby’s name, because you can still name your own baby whatever you want—there’s not a national quota of Melissabeths—but at least in those situations people are arguing about a human being’s name, not a metal box that lives in your kitchen and heats your food. It’s a stove! Why does it feel important to you that you be the only one of your friends to own a particular variety?
Q. Down in front!: In light of your recent letter on public show etiquette for people of all heights, I wanted to pose my question: I am a 6-foot-tall woman who has been dealing with being taller than most people for the better part of my life. Recently I was at an outdoor festival where a dance performance was being held. My husband and I found spots early and waited for the show to begin. Halfway through the performance I noticed people behind me giving me sharp looks and sighing about not being able to see. What should I do in these situations? I’m not trying to ruin anyone else’s experience, but I can’t help that I’m tall! If I let everyone who was behind me stand in front of me I will eventually be too far away to enjoy the show.
A: If you got to the show early, those grumbly people behind you had the chance to find somewhere else to stand. They didn’t! That’s not your fault, and neither is it your problem.
Q. No ocean for him: Every year my family goes to the beach for a week, and every year my nephews refuses to go into the ocean. He is content with playing in the sand and swimming in the pool. My brother and SIL spend the week arguing with, dragging the boy to the water, and threatening to end the trip early. My nephew is now 5. I have tried telling them to leave the kid alone, reassuring him that it’s his choice, and I am told to mind my own business. Our parents and siblings don’t say anything. Do I have to tolerate this again this year?
A: That is one of the weirdest, most dangerous things to try to force a child to do! “No, Billy, you can’t just enjoy the beach as a 5-year-old! I insist that you wade into the most powerful force on Earth, the mighty sea.” Threatening to end a vacation early because a little child doesn’t want to tangle with Poseidon is bizarre and emotionally manipulative, and I hope that this is a real outlier in how your brother and his wife treat their son, because if this is just a more extreme example of their usual parenting methods, my heart breaks for him. (Not to mention that drowning is a serious risk for little children, and there’s no reason to force a scared 5-year-old to go in the ocean.) I hate to tell you that you have to go on this lousy, weirdly mean vacation year after year, but I’m worried that there’s no one else looking out for this defenseless little boy. I’m so glad he at least has you in his life to intervene when his own parents bully him, and I think you should continue to go and watch his back.
Q. Helping a suicidal friend: One of my good friends, who is about 27, has been talking about suicide a lot lately. She’s mentioned that she has a plan, so I know the situation is quite dire. She’s been adamant that she can’t talk to her parents or any other friends (I’m her only local friend—she moved to my city from about 800 miles away) about how she’s feeling. She has a therapist she’s been talking to, but it doesn’t seem to be making much difference. I’ve been staying on her couch because I don’t feel comfortable leaving her alone, but I’m exhausted, and my own mental health is suffering. Today, I went behind her back and called her father to ask him to help. He’s flying in tomorrow night, unbeknownst to her. I know she’s going to be absolutely furious with me when she finds out and honestly may not speak to me again. Did I do something horrible by betraying her trust, or did I make the right choice to ask for help?
A: I’ll assume your friend was adamant she couldn’t talk to her parents not because they are abusive or harmful, but out of a generalized sense of helplessness and despair. You’re in the middle of a pretty imperfect situation, and reaching out to your friend’s family seemed like the best option available to you at the time, given that she’s reached the stage of developing a concrete plan to kill herself. Therapists are mandatory reporters when it comes to disclosing a plan and means to commit suicide, so either your friend is being less-than-honest about her intentions with her therapist, or her therapist is neglecting their professional obligations. Whether or not your friend is happy with you after her father arrives, I think you should go easy on yourself. You do not have a pleasant option available to you, and you are doing the best you can to preserve your friend’s life and well-being. Please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) for further support in the meantime. You cannot be the only support in your friend’s life, and you did the right thing in asking for help.