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: Good morning, chatters. Let's hack our way through this.
Q. Brother accused of sexual assault: My brother is 30 years old and has a history of making bad choices, including a DUI and probation. After several years adrift, he finally seemed to be getting his act together. He got accepted to graduate school and did well enough that he was offered a teaching position upon graduation. However, I recently found out that my brother was accused of sexual assault by a female undergraduate student.
The college rescinded his teaching contract, and basically told him that if he disappeared, no charges would be filed by the institution or the accuser. My brother didn't fight it or get an attorney, he simply packed up and left town. I talked to him about it briefly and he shows no remorse, regret, guilt, or desire to defend his name. In fact, his attitude was cavalier and entitled, as though he was baffled that anyone would make a big deal about it. While I have no proof, his attitude toward the situation makes me fairly confident that my brother is, indeed, a sexual predator of some nature.
I am so disgusted and ashamed of his behavior. I have two small children, and I cannot imagine letting them socialize or spend holidays with him. I also can't imagine watching him date, or eventually get married, while my family pretends he's some stand-up guy (which is what they are doing now). What is the best way to move forward, and to set some clear boundaries for myself and my children? I refuse to spend a lifetime being complicit in his behavior by never addressing the elephant in the room.
A: One brief, baffling conversation with your brother isn’t enough. Reopen the subject. “[Brother], you were just fired from a terrific job because someone accused you of sexual assault, and I can’t understand why you seem so untroubled about it. The fact that you made no attempt to clear your name leads me to believe that either you did assault a student—which would be horrifying—or there’s something else going on. Either way, I’m deeply concerned, and I can’t figure out why you’re not. Is there something I’m missing here?”
If he continues to be evasive or dismissive, then you can decide if that’s a reasonable response to being asked to resign over a sexual assault accusation. You don’t need to have “proof” one way or the other, because you’re not being asked to hand down a prison sentence. All you have to do is determine, to the best of your ability, whether or not you trust your brother. If you don’t, you don’t have to have him in your life.
Q. I need to quit my job: My job is keeping me from doing what I love. The problem is I make decent money and have benefits I wouldn't have as a freelancer. My husband does well, but our children are all in private school—a necessity, not negotiable—and it's not free. Quitting wouldn't kill us, but how long do I try to freelance until I give up and take another job I hate? I'm 45, so I don't have all the time in the world.
Also, I feel bad whining about my job, because it's a good one with great co-workers. But I hate it so damn much. I feel sick when I open my eyes in the morning and remember I have to go.
A: Is it the mere fact that you have a 9-to-5 job that makes you feel sick in the morning, or is it something about the job you have right now? Because there are numerous options between soul-crushing, emotionally devastating day job with great benefits and panicked freelancer at the mercy of every errant breeze.
What freelance projects have you done already, and how much have they generally paid? What’s the longest you could wait on a payment (because freelancers are always the last to be paid at every company—this is the one universal rule of freelancing) before it started to affect your ability to pay your bills? What’s the minimum you’d need to make per month for this to be feasible, and how long would you be able to make less than that before you’d have to give up? Could you find another, less demanding day job that leaves more room on the side for freelance work? Figure out, with your husband’s active participation, just how much of a risk this career transition would actually entail, and identify a firm bailing-out point. It’s terrible to wake up in the morning dreading work, but it’s also terrible to wake up in the morning dreading bills.
Q. Fallout from secret breakup: My wife has been having an affair for at least the past 18 months. I know because one of her nosey friends told me, and because of some Facebook messages she accidentally left open on our laptop.
Those same messages make me quite sure she loves me and does not want to split. She has really been heartbroken for the past few weeks—crying in the bathroom, uninterested in things she usually enjoys, distracted, and generally sad. Nosey friend says she broke up with her boyfriend.
I know I should be angry, but her obvious grief breaks my heart. I want to do or say something to help her recover and feel better, but I don't know what. I won't confront her because I consider the affair to be her business. She can share that or not as seems right to her. I think confronting her would be cruel and destructive given where she's at.
What do you suggest?
A: I’m not sure why you think your wife’s affair is none of your business. Nor do I understand why you think it would be “cruel” to acknowledge her obvious misery, given how generous and broadminded you seem to be about the whole thing. It’s not as if you are contemplating kicking her while she’s down. I think you should talk to her about it.
Q. Vow renewal?: My husband and I have been married for 15 years and have three kids. I have sacrificed my career for him, moved away from my family, and stayed at home with our kids for the past eight years (despite never wanting to be a stay-at-home mom). He is a classic workaholic and works 70 hours a week out of a sense of “needing to get his job done.”
My husband and I have been attending a series at our church on marriage. It ends this weekend with a vow renewal ceremony. My husband does not want to participate in the ceremony. I feel that it would be good for us, as we've had rocky times in the past few years. I can't help but feel such rejection from him.
Am I failing to see his perspective? Am I justified in wanting to feel commitment and love from him?
A: I think the ceremony itself is less important than what it’s bringing up for the both of you. You’ve worked at a job you don’t like for the last eight years, and your husband spends more time at the office than he does at home with you (assuming he gets a full eight hours of sleep every night). You two are attending marriage counseling sessions together but still aren’t on the same page. I don’t know if he doesn’t want to renew your vows because he considers it an unnecessary formality or because he’s halfway checked out of your marriage already (or maybe a little bit of both), but I think the ceremony is much less important than figuring out what you two want out of your life together, and whether your goals are mutually compatible.
Do you want to start working outside the home again? Do you want him to cut back on his hours at work? Do you want to stay married to him if nothing changes in the next year, or five years, or ten? I don’t think renewing your vows is the only way your husband could possibly demonstrate commitment or love to you, but I don’t think you’d be writing to me if he were demonstrating that elsewhere in your marriage.
Q. Severe morning sickness: I'm pregnant, do not want to be, and am currently waiting for my insurance to kick in on the first of the month so that I may safely and affordably terminate the pregnancy. Unfortunately, I am experiencing symptoms of hyperemesis gravidarum and have been unable to keep anything other than water down for the last week and a half or so.
I told my boss out of necessity and am able to work from home, but I've withdrawn socially quite a bit. My boyfriend is taking fantastic care of me, but I'm struggling with wanting to explain to close friends and family that I'm ill, while not wanting to explain the situation as a whole. With close friends and family, it's a bit hard to just say "Oh, I'm very ill and will be sequestered to my home for the next week until I can get medicine." My family, especially, will have questions, and I'm just not ready to explain fully yet. My sister recently had an abortion, and they spent the few weeks leading up to her procedure begging her to keep it.
Any advice on how to navigate?
A: If you’re simply looking to forestall any prying or further attention, I think you can skip the part about how you’re going to get better next week, as that will only prompt follow-up questions. Just tell everyone who asks that you’re sick, that your boyfriend is taking good care of you, and that you’ve made a doctor’s appointment. If they offer to check in on you, tell them your boyfriend’s making sure you’ve got everything you need and that you’re probably still contagious.
Q. Twin Q-and-A: I'm a fraternal twin born three hours after my brother. My entire life, people I've just met have made an array of comments that range from just dumb to insensitive. If they ask how much time there is between us, upon hearing three hours they'll say something along the lines of "Oh, your poor mother!" or "That must have hurt!" Frankly, that's a bizarre thing to say to someone you've just met. Worse are the people who follow up with "Were you natural or IVF?" Everyone is "natural," first of all, and secondly, why do you deserve to know? If I answer truthfully and say that we were not IVF, people sometimes respond with "Oh that's good," and that leaves me feeling crummy about this person's weird views on IVF.
How can I answer strangers' weird, prying questions in a way that makes them realize how WTF their question is?
A: “I don’t want to discuss the details of my conception or my mother’s experience giving birth.”
Q: Co-worker and smelly food: I have an age-old office problem—the guy who sits across the cubicle wall from me eats the smelliest chips on the planet every morning. It's so bad that most mornings I have to leave my desk for around 30 minutes and work elsewhere. I don't know what to do!
I don't want to complain to human resources because they would bring our managers in and this seems like such a small thing—I don't want to be that person. No one else seems to be bothered by the smell so I must just be sensitive to that flavor of chip (my guess on the flavor is onion-stuffed dead fish). I don't know the guy as he works for a different department, so I don't feel comfortable talking to him. Would it be wrong to leave an anonymous note? I would hate to get such a thing at work because you would always wonder who left it, but it seems like the easiest option. It's becoming a huge distraction for me. Help!
A: Go say something in person! An anonymous note is completely unnecessary here. Be friendly and introduce yourself. You can be perfectly polite while making this request, just tell him what you told me—that you’re a little embarrassed to bring it up, but that you sit quite close to him and find the smell of the chips he eats in the morning overwhelming and distracting, and you hope he could either eat them in the break room or before he starts working. Right now, he has no idea this is bothering you, and you should operate on the assumption (at least until proven otherwise) that he’s a generally reasonable, accommodating person, and would happily move his chip eating to a slightly more convenient location.
Q. Re: Renewal of vows: I’m not saying your marriage doesn't have issues that a good therapist could help address, but people "renewing their vows" is in almost every case a public expression of "our marriage is terrible.” He probably knows this, at least unconsciously. You're likely much better off getting him to go to counseling with you, or at least finding a counselor for yourself. Personally, I'd serve him with an ultimatum: change your work habits, or divorce me and pay me child support.
A: I have no idea if the statistics bear out this perception, but it seems the conventional wisdom is that a vow renewal ceremony is often a sign of impending divorce.
Q. Can’t spare a square, an update: We listened to your response! I laughed my ass off, and he was thoroughly chastened, and he bought a metric f-ckton of toilet paper for his house.
A: This is the most joy any single update has ever brought me. I cannot tell you how much I have worried about you ever since I read your letter. To your boyfriend: Go and sin no more.