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I'm in my late 40s, successful, and fairly attractive. I travel both domestically and internationally alone quite a bit. I try my best to cultivate a standoffish air, complete with big headphones, but that only seems to dissuade the polite guys who can take a hint. I end up getting hit on by men who are almost universally lacking in social decorum, to the point that I’m not interested in talking to them, much less letting them buy me a drink. I'm not big and I look young so it's hard to appear physically intimidating. It's very uncomfortable because no matter how polite I am they almost always pull attitude when I decline their offer. Since it happens most often when I’m traveling, sometimes we’re staying at the same hotel, sharing an exit row on the plane, or attending the same conference. I sometimes find myself hiding, checking the locks on my hotel room door, or not falling asleep on long flights. When I travel near home, I bring my German shepherds with me, which helps, but I get tired of making up imaginary boyfriends to keep these guys at bay. The two most recent instances actually involved the owners of the small hotels I was staying at—one said it was “cool” with his pregnant partner if he and I had a relationship (so completely not my thing)—and I'm too uncomfortable to go back again. The other followed me back to my cabin on a prior visit. Both places are isolated, without cell coverage.
I want to enjoy my travel and not worry about creepy men. How do I best handle these situations? I work in tech and put up with this type of treatment day in, day out, and don't really want to spend my free time dealing with it too. And please don’t think I’m being stuck-up about my appearance. This isn't about how I look. It is about how entitled these men feel for the attention of any woman alone. Short of a mail-order husband or staying home, what is your advice? Before you think, “Boo-hoo, these aren’t real problems,” please consider how you’d feel, spending your hard-earned money on a vacation where you feel compelled to hide behind guard dogs or a locked door.
—No Thanks, I’m Fine
I can assure you that dismissing your problems as fake or the byproduct of vanity was the furthest thing from my mind! Being followed back to her room, repeatedly propositioned by married men, or badgered by pests throughout the course of a flight or a conference should not be the tax a woman has to pay for traveling by herself. Nor would I advise you to stop traveling, if it’s something you generally enjoy, just because some men refuse to demonstrate good judgment and self-restraint. I wish I could tell you there were some series of actions you could take that would eliminate all the creepy and unsettling advances of strange men before they started, but I don’t know of any. There are a variety of guides that recommend certain travel destinations as being particularly welcoming to women traveling alone that you might wish to avail yourself of, but you’ve learned from experience that this problem is global and impossible to completely control for. In addition to the precautions you’ve already had to take, I think you should let go of your sense of obligation to “not be rude” when strange men hit on you. As a rule it is a great idea to hold politeness as your guiding principle in social interactions, but that does not mean that politeness is the highest possible good. If you want to make it clear to someone that you are not interested in having a conversation, politeness will not help you achieve that goal. The facts that you’ve felt the need to bring guard dogs with you and that someone has at least once followed you back to your room suggest (rightly, I think) that you’re concerned at least some of the time not just with having to fend off unwanted advances from clueless boors but also for your own safety. I encourage you to pay attention to that self-preservation instinct and to take whatever steps you think are necessary to look after yourself—whether that’s insisting on staying in hotels with good cell reception, having a friend you can check in with regularly, or asking for a female flight attendant/concierge/travel guide to switch your seat or walk with you to your car or hotel room at the end of the night.
That doesn’t mean you have to fling a brick in the direction of any man who says “Is this 8A? I think I’m seated in 8B,” but give yourself permission to be blunt when ending (or declining to enter) a conversation with someone who gives you the willies. Since these guys “pull attitude” anyways even if you’re polite, why not stop being polite when you turn them down? It is likely, by the way, that the things you want to say are not “rude” at all and are in fact merely direct. It is not rude to not want to flirt with someone, or to decline to embark on an extramarital affair with the manager of your hotel. The following are examples of sentences that are not rude in the least:
- “No, thank you.”
- “I’m not interested.”
- “I don’t want a drink.”
- “I’m going to get back to my book now.”
- “I don’t want to talk.”
* * *
I have a friend who thinks we’re closer than we really are. We met in college and spent a lot of time together then, although even at the time I suspected she saw me as a closer friend than I did her. She’s supportive and loyal, and I’ve always enjoyed her company and have tried to be a good friend. In the 10 years since college I’ve made other friends, many of whom I have more in common with and enjoy being around. My college friend still contacts me frequently to get together and often asks how I can be “so busy.” I really am fairly busy, and when I do have time to socialize, I’d rather see my other friends.
When we talk, she’ll say things like “This reminds me why you’re the one I enjoy talking to most out of all my friends,” and I’m sure she notices when I don’t reciprocate (for all her good qualities, she can be stern and judgmental about other people). Her veiled accusations that I should want to hang out with her more than I do are becoming more frequent and I don’t know how to respond. I’m grateful for her friendship and like her—I just don’t want to spend any more time together than we already do. She has done nothing wrong, and I don't want to completely exclude her from my life. I just want to keep the friendship at the level that it is. Is this possible, or should I break off the friendship altogether?
The good news is that you’ve managed to maintain roughly the same distance between the two of you for well over a decade, which says a lot about the long-term success of your strategy. Odds are good you’ll be able to continue meeting for lunch once every other month or so for the foreseeable future. You don’t seem in danger of crumbling and asking her to move in with you or anything like that—your only problem is what to do with your discomfort when she openly acknowledges that power imbalance between the two of you. It can be tempting, when someone else says, “You’re my favorite friend/I wish you weren’t so busy/We should do this more often” to reciprocate, or at least parrot their fiction (“I feel the same way! I wish I weren’t so busy too! Let’s schedule a road trip I have no intention of taking!”) to minimize in-person awkwardness, but that’s just kicking the problem down the road.
She may still periodically drop hints that she wants to renew those long-ago intimacies of your college days, but you’re under no obligation to return them. This isn’t a change in your relationship, and you don’t owe her an explanation for a sudden change in behavior. The trick, I think, is to acknowledge (rather than ignore or deflect) what she’s saying without agreeing to her premise. Which is a tricky needle to thread! But it’s doable. So when she says something like:
- “This reminds me why I like talking to you more than anyone else.”
- “I just don’t understand how busy you are! No one else I know is this busy.”
- “This was so much fun! I can’t understand why we don’t have lunch every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and alternate Saturdays.”
- “That means a lot to me! Thank you so much.”
- “I’m glad we found a time that worked for both of us. I don’t want to waste any of our time together talking about my work schedule—I do enough of that at the office.”
- “This was fun! I’m just glad we found the time to get together.”
Keep it cheerful and focused on the present moment, and don’t concede that you’re doing anything wrong by not opening up your day planner in front of her and letting her write her name on all the blank spaces.
* * *
I am an Orthodox Jew. As such, I don't “work” during my Sabbath from sundown Friday to twilight Saturday each week. Because we can't use the internet or drive, the Sabbath is a prime hangout time for me and my friends. Typical Sabbaths involve going over to friends' apartments for meals, chatting, and playing board games. It's usually very lovely.
The problem is that my friends very rarely host meals on the Sabbath. Therefore, the burden of hosting typically falls on me. I don't mind hosting every once in a while, but I feel that if I don't put something together, we won't see each other. I know for a fact that the weeks I don't pull a meal together, my friends just sit alone in their respective apartments and feel sorry for themselves. I think that's incredibly dumb. Couple this with the fact that I dislike hosting (it's expensive and stressful, I dislike cooking, and I'm an introvert who needs breaks from people), and resentment is starting to build in an unhealthy way. I can't host so frequently, especially when my friends don't host in the intervening weeks. But I also want to spend time with my friends on the Sabbath. What should I do?
Feel free to adjust the following email/text script depending on what degree of Nancy Mitford you’re willing to channel: “Darlings! I’m so excited to see you all next Friday—who’s game for hosting? If I have to so much as look at my oven one more time I’m going to scream, so my place is out, but I can’t wait to see all of your beautiful faces.”
I don’t, by the way, recommend demanding that other people host one as a rule, but when it’s a longstanding engagement between old friends, there’s no point in standing on ceremony. Lightly pointing out the hosting imbalance and letting it be known that you’re taking an extended vacation from meal prep is the best way to go here. Either your friends rise to the occasion and you have a lovely Sabbath dinner with them (that you didn’t have to prepare), or they dither and you can make alternate arrangements for yourself.
Dear Prudence: I think I’m in love with my ex-stepbrother.
Hear more Prudie at Slate.com/Prudiepod.
I’ve been married for 19 years and we have three sons together—two in college and one just starting high school. I started a relationship with another woman about nine months ago that was supposed to be just a one-time thing, but we fell in love (I know I’ve always had a thing for women). I’ve known her for three years. She has two wonderful daughters and is out as a lesbian. My sons all know their father and I are planning to get divorced. Of course they want us to work it out, but I’m in love with this woman. We connect like I never have with anyone else. I’m also in counseling and have been for six months.
I’m scared to come out to my children because I’m afraid I will lose them forever. I love my sons, but I’m torn because I want to be with this woman for real. She isn’t pressuring me to come out or to introduce her to my kids or the rest of my family and friends; she says when the time is right I’ll know. She’s been so patient and accepts me as I am. My children have told me that whoever their father or I date, they will treat that person horribly and “chase them away.” I know they’re just hurt about the separation, but I don’t want to lose my girlfriend. What can I do?
The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do! You have, apparently, the support of your soon-to-be-ex-husband, who has done you and your children a real service by not sharing the details of your infidelity with them. You yourself are already in counseling, which is excellent, and your ex at least appears to have come to terms with the reality of your end of your marriage. I’ll put in my usual plug for PFLAG here, and encourage you to schedule a counseling appointment for at least the son who still lives at home. You can also encourage your older sons to join you and your ex for a few sessions of family counseling, if your ex is amenable. The rush of new love (especially after a lifetime of being in the closet) is enough to give anyone a little tunnel vision, so the challenge for you now will be to continue to make your children’s well-being a priority. Your sons are not going to be happy about the fact that you’ve found real love with someone who isn’t their father, so don’t expect them to be. That doesn’t mean you have to leave the woman you love if they don’t approve, but it does mean that you should continue to take your time when it comes to making any introductions.
The fact that you’re queer and the fact that your marriage has ended because you cheated on your husband and fell in love with someone else are two distinct conversations. One of them is necessary, and should be scheduled sooner rather than later; the other can wait and may or may not be age-appropriate for your youngest. Talk with your counselor and your co-parent about what a coming-out conversation with your children might look like. The two of you should do your best to present a united front when providing your kids with information about your divorce. You’ve only been with this woman for nine months, and under pretty dramatic circumstances. I’m not saying you two don’t stand a chance of making it in the long run, but there is absolutely no reason she needs to meet any of your children in the near future. Nor should you consider moving in with her anytime soon, especially if you and your ex-husband are going to share custody of your youngest son for the next four years. The key ingredients that will help you move into the next phase of your life are patience and time.
* * *
I've lived with anxiety and depression for the past 25 years. I am high-functioning, but there are some days I struggle to get out of bed. Most days I win the battle and make it to work, where I am now a supervisor. I know I do a good job and feel I'm generally respected by my colleagues, but around once a month I can't resist the urge to spend the day in bed. I never do it when I'm truly needed at the office, so it's usually when I have some downtime that day. I think it's obvious to the people who report to me that I am taking mental health days, and I worry they are judging me negatively for it. Is there anything I can do to change this pattern or to help them understand my situation? I am on medication and have been in counseling off and on throughout my adult life. Nothing has helped with my problem of attendance at work.
Let’s point out the obvious first: You’ve been able to become a supervisor, perform well at your job, and earn the respect of your peers, all while dealing with this intermittent torpor. It hasn’t held you back in that respect, and none of your own supervisors have expressed any concern about your ability to do your job. It’s not clear from your letter if you take the whole workday off on these days or whether you cobble together some method of working from bed. If it’s the latter, then as long as it’s in line with your company’s policy for working from home, I don’t think you need to worry about what your direct reports may or may not think about your reasons for not coming in to the office once a month. As long as you’re not interfering with their ability to get work done (say, by being unreachable and unable to address time-sensitive questions that only you can answer), I don’t think you should try to get your employees to understand your situation. It’s none of their business, and one of the prerogatives of being a manager is setting your own schedule—within reason—according to whatever you think will be the best use of your time.
If you’re using PTO during these days, once again, as long as it’s not in violation of your company’s sick leave policy, I think you can go easy on yourself. Twelve days out a year is higher than the national average, but it’s not unheard of for someone at a supervisory level. It’s great that you’re looking for ways to be more present at work and to minimize days where your depression spikes high enough that getting out of bed is an unrealistic goal.
Right now, it sounds like most of the criticism is coming from you—not your bosses and not the people you work with every day. You “think” they’re guessing the reason and silently judging you for it, but given that you’re generally respected by everyone and do a good job, I think that might be a mild case of projection. Whenever possible, if you can give your employees advance notice that you’ll either be taking a sick day or working from home and only reachable by email, that will help them work smoothly around your absence. In the meantime, don’t be harder on yourself than you have to be.
* * *
I have a friend who recently became engaged to a man she has been dating less than a year. She met him at work, and he has been known to jump from woman to woman there. I’ve heard that her fiancé will date women in his office and then all of a sudden start ignoring them—speaking to everyone around them but giving them the silent treatment. One woman already quit her job over how he treated her. Another chewed him out but says she won’t give him the “satisfaction” of leaving. She was pregnant when he dropped her, and now she works right next to him (and has to watch him carry on with my friend).
I’ve tried to tell my friend how bad her situation is and to put herself in the other women’s shoes, but she feels like she has “won the prize.” In February they went on vacation together, broke up after my friend overheard one of his exes talking about him in the office bathroom, then got back together. In May he proposed. I think he is trying to justify his mistreatment of the previous woman by appearing to be over the top in love with my friend in a short amount of time. I don't want my friend to get hurt by bringing this man into her and her child's life, and I'm tired of hearing people call my friend dumb and stupid. What can I do?
You have thoroughly convinced me that your friend is making a bad decision (and works at one of the most badly managed offices of all time). I imagine that’s fairly cold comfort, because you are trying to convince your friend that she is making a bad decision, and all the agreement from all the strangers in the world doesn’t seem likely to sway her from her course. If I thought your friend lacked useful information about her fiancé’s character, I might encourage you to share something, but she has been given a full-length oil painting’s worth of information about just how untrustworthy and selfish this guy is, and she still considers him a prize. (I realize this is not the point of your letter, but: Are any of these people getting any work done?) Your friend almost certainly will get hurt, and that’s very sad, but she seems pretty determined to let this guy hurt her. Since she’s an adult and he hasn’t demonstrated any signs of abuse—just varsity-level manipulation and likely infidelity—she gets to make that decision. You can, and should, make it clear just how much you disapprove of this guy, but you can’t force her to change her mind.
Nor can you keep others from talking about what a bad decision she’s making, because she is making a spectacularly, publicly bad decision. You don’t have to indulge them, of course—you can say “I’m not thrilled about this situation either, but Spliffany is my friend and I don’t want to run her down”—but my general advice to you is to get about 85 percent less involved with this entire situation. It’s hard to watch a good friend make bad decisions, but you aren’t helping her any by getting constant updates from her co-workers. Offer her loving but critical feedback as her friend, then back off. She’s determined to learn this one on her own.
More Dear Prudence Columns
“Baby, Bumped: My husband refuses to have sex with me while I’m pregnant.”
“How Sweet It Almost Was: The man I loved for years has admitted he loved me too—but now we’re married to other people.”
“Try, Try Again: I haven’t been able to have a second child, but my husband won’t give up.”
“The Silent Sexuality: I’m bisexual, but my wife doesn’t want me to talk about it.”
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“All Dogs Go to Heaven Anyway: Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband shot the neighbor’s dogs.”
“Lost to Lust: Prudie advises a woman who kicked her husband out for masturbating to a friend’s photo.”
“Swipe Wrong: Prudie advises a woman who hasn’t told her Tinder fling-turned-boyfriend that she has a child.”
“Thumbs Down: Prudie counsels a letter writer whose husband won’t stop picking up hitchhikers.”