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.)
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Mallory Ortberg: Morning, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. My husband’s best friend, the repentant wife beater: A month ago, my husband Ben’s lifelong best friend Matt sent his estranged wife Claudia to the hospital. Despite our husbands’ closeness, Claudia and I never clicked, but I’m horrified by how badly Matt hurt her. Since we found out, Ben and I have argued about our relationship with Matt. I want nothing to do with him; Ben believes we need to support him now more than ever.
Neither of us denies Matt’s behavior was terrible, but Matt also alleges that he’d just found out Claudia was cheating on him. Ben believes everyone deserves second chances, but I’ve felt disgust every time I’ve been around Matt during the past month. It doesn’t matter to me that he’s sorry now.
Ben can’t believe I’d ask him to end this friendship, and he says I’m being unforgiving. Am I out of my mind for considering ending an amazing marriage because of my husband’s friendship with a wife beater? Why am I finding it so difficult to reach a middle ground with Ben?
A: “Support” for your husband’s friend Matt does not look anything like sweeping his violent assault under the rug and going back to business as usual. The best possible outcome for Matt is for him to receive serious consequences for his actions, to seek professional help for his violent behavior, and to be prevented from harming others, particularly his estranged wife, in the future. Moreover, the person who needs the most support right now is not Matt at all, but Claudia.
Beating someone violently enough to put them in the hospital is not justifiable, whether or not she was unfaithful. There is nothing Claudia could have done that would contextualize or reframe Matt’s behavior as anything other than abusive and illegal. The reason you are finding it so difficult to reach “a middle ground” with your husband is because there is no appropriate middle ground to finding out a man you know has hospitalized a woman. What your husband is suggesting is not a middle ground but collaboration and compromise with sexist violence. You should not seek to meet him halfway. If your husband “can’t believe” you don’t want to continue a friendship with a man who beat his wife so badly she required immediate medical attention, then I wonder very much what he does consider friendship-ending behavior. It is very appropriate for you to be horrified by your husband’s response, and you should take what this tells you about his own values very seriously.
“A second chance” for Matt does not look like hanging out with him at a barbecue three weeks after he assaulted his wife. It looks like submitting himself to legal repercussions, seeking out a restorative justice program, making serious and lifelong amends, and leaving Claudia in peace. That doesn’t appear to be the course Matt is pursuing, and you are absolutely right to draw a line. Do not participate in this collective effort to sweep his actions under the rug. If you have not already done so, please make it clear to Claudia that you support her, that you are available if she needs help ensuring her own safety and accessing resources to leave her abusive husband, and that you are on her side. There’s a very clear right and wrong here. If your husband’s not willing to join you on the right side, then your marriage may already be over.
Q. Instagram insecurity: About a year ago my boyfriend mentioned to me that he thought his Instagram use was “weird.” When I asked him what he meant, he said that he uses it mostly to look at pictures of women he finds attractive. I was surprised he confided this in me and asked him to delete it, and he complied. Since then, I’ve found him using Instagram again to look at women on three separate occasions. Each time we had a huge fight and he would promise not to do it again. This time, when I once again found him on the site (after he lied about whether he used it), he apologized but said he couldn’t promise not to use it again because it was just a “thought crime.”
I’m upset that he lied to me about his use of the site and I’m feeling insecure about the way he uses the site. I feel weird about being so crazy about this because I’m totally fine with his porn usage. Somehow this is different. Please help me figure out how to be okay with this.
A: Weird is a great word to use to describe your situation! Your boyfriend is the one who’s drawn your attention to how he uses Instagram—something in between porn and general lifestyle voyeurism—and alerted you to the fact that he thinks there’s something odd about it, but then shuts down when you try to talk to him about it. (It should perhaps go without saying that I don’t think he needs to invoke George Orwell over his God-given right to sort-of perv on strangers without receiving any sort of criticism or feedback, but good for him for swinging for the fences with “thought crime,” I guess.)
Your current strategy as a couple clearly isn’t working, and the conversation you ought to be having together isn’t, I don’t think, whether or not he “should” have Instagram, but what fears and insecurities this dynamic brings up for both of you. Are you worried he’s going to try to get in touch with some of the women he low-key ogles and cheat on you? Does he use it in a way that’s distracting or obvious? Would you feel comfortable if you two could have a conversation that acknowledges your feelings, reaffirms his commitment to you, and agrees on a sort of détente where he doesn’t have to lie about it, but neither does he leave an obvious trail for you to find? Wherever the answer lies, he’s going to have to volunteer a little more information about his internal thoughts and feelings than “I use Instagram in a weird way, please don’t ask me follow-up questions, you are the thought police.”
Q. Too smart for something like that: Growing up, I’ve always been praised for how intellectual I am. I feel like this is a humble brag, but to give you an idea I read at a college reading level before middle school and was in calculus my sophomore year of high school. My grandmother, who is very overbearing, would brag to everyone about how smart I am. My parents, too, would stress the importance of keeping up so I could go to a good school and be more or less set for life. Now I’m in college in a very rigorous major, and I despise it. The work is fine, and even when I’m challenged I don’t feel overwhelmed, but being forced into this major has made me overwhelmingly apathetic to anything requiring more than basic algebra.
Even now, the thought of working for the rest of my life in the technology field makes me want to skip town, change my name, and so on. I would cut off my leg for the chance to pursue what I’m really interested in: massage therapy. I want to help and work with people directly, rather than computers.
Now I’m stuck between knowing I should finish my degree first and desperately wanting to walk out on my current college and go to a school with a program I actually want to pursue. I’m also scared out of my mind of what my parents and grandmother would do if I “threw away” everything I worked for, as well as the money they’ve spent sending me to their school of choice. Should I just continue with my boring but highly marketable degree that could easily net me a six-figure salary, or go for the thing that I actually want to do at the cost of losing thousands of dollars in potential income and upsetting my family?
A: The good news is that you have multiple options available to you between “stay in the major I hate and become an outrageously wealthy but Joyless Drone” and “drop out of college right now and become a massage therapist.” If you haven’t already, talk to your academic adviser and someone at your campus’ career services center; they may be able to offer helpful advice. It may be possible to get a kinesiology degree at the school you’re already at. Since you’re particularly good at school, you might even try going for a double major so you have a backup. Start doing some background research: What’s the job market like for massage therapists right now? What sort of degree work or certification is necessary in order to break into the field, and how much time would it take? Would it alleviate some of your frustration to consider changing your major to something that interests you more than your current studies? A college degree isn’t always a failsafe against unemployment, especially these days, but if you’re close to graduating with a degree that would make it very easy for you to make a great deal of money, then it’s certainly worth considering the benefits of gritting your teeth and sticking it out just for the additional security.
That said, it’s your life, and college is certainly the time to start figuring out what you do and don’t want out of it. If you’re absolutely certain that you don’t want to go into this field, ever, and you’re prepared to figure out a backup plan if your parents withdraw their financial support, then do your research, make a plan, and defend your decision. Good luck.
Q. The necklace: My boyfriend and I have been together for four years now, and we have a wonderful 2.5-year-old daughter. Last year, for Mother’s Day, he bought me a necklace with her birthstone. In the entire span of our relationship I have never worn a necklace, or really any jewelry, to the point of making the statement “I don’t like jewelry.” It’s inconvenient to take on and off every night, every morning, and when I exercise.
So just don’t wear it right? No. Any time I forget to wear it he takes that as a personal affront to him, insinuating I should wear it because I love him. I am tired of the guilt trip, and honestly I just don’t want to wear it! I have told him that I don’t really want to wear it to no avail. How can I fix this without fighting over something so silly?
A: “I don’t like the necklace. I don’t like necklaces in general. I appreciate the sentiment behind it, and if you want to talk about what feelings of rejection or insecurity this is clearly bringing up for you, I’m more than happy to do that, but this necklace is not a test of my love for you, and I’m not going to wear it on a regular basis.” I don’t think avoiding a fight, even if you think the subject is silly, is the highest possible good here; the best thing for you to do is clearly communicate what you are and aren’t willing to do, and make it clear that this necklace is not a litmus test for your feelings. If a fight arises out of that, that’s fine—sometimes silly little things spark big, important conversations about trust and expectations.
Q. Nosy neighbor: A few months ago, I moved into a new apartment. My neighbor across the hall, Jeff, has taken a large interest in me. The first week I moved in, he came by with a platter of cookies and asked me a few normal neighborly questions. Three days later, as I came home from work, he approached me and asked about my job.
Since then, he’s asked me about my dating life, my parents, my future plans for children, where I’d like to live permanently, and other questions of varying appropriateness. I’ve never grown quite so close to him, and I’ve never had much of an interest to get to know him. My neighbors have affirmed that this behavior is exclusive to me. How do I tell him to stop? Or is this just normal?
A: It’s perfectly appropriate and polite for you to cut a conversation short—or to refuse to enter into one at all—if you don’t want to talk to him. If he asks you a question you don’t want to answer, or starts grilling you about your parents, feel free to walk away from the conversation and say, “I don’t want to discuss that. Have a nice day; I’ve got to get going.” You also do not have to answer the door to him if you don’t want to invite him in, stay in the hall just because he calls your name when you’re heading out to run errands, or in any way encourage his friendship.
Your two questions are totally unrelated, but betray a common misconception—that if what your neighbor is doing is somehow “normal,” you do not have the right to tell him to stop. He doesn’t have to be doing something objectively, across-the-board wrong for you not to like it. If you don’t want to talk to Jeff, if you don’t want to trade cookie recipes and dish about your respective personal lives, if you want to be politely distant neighbors with him and nothing else, you get to do exactly that.
Q. Re: Too smart: Finish the degree, finish the degree, finish the degree. Try massage therapy afterward, but having that highly valuable degree is always something to fall back on. Your priorities may or may not change as you get older, but that degree will always be there.
A: I’m getting a lot of similar responses advising the letter writer to mix caution with optimism! I think the best choice is to start preparing for a career change over the next few years without making any immediate, drastic decisions like dropping out right now.
Q. Cat fight: For months, my 17-year-old sister has been begging for a cat. Our parents caved and she received a kitten, so long as she was the only one responsible for it. She’s been good at keeping up with the responsibility and absolutely adores the cat, but has recently fallen behind in school and got a speeding ticket. My mother is furious, and decided she wasn’t “deserving” of the cat anymore, and will be rehoming it by the end of the month.
Part of me wants to take the cat for my sister, but I know it’ll just ignite a war within my family. I also know my sister won’t be able to keep up with this cat while trying to get back on track for graduation. Is it cruel to let my mom give this beloved kitten to a complete stranger?
A: It’s not great! Pets aren’t prizes to be offered and withheld based on academic performance or good behavior; they’re animals with needs and routines that are capable of suffering and being distressed.
If you’re able, encourage your mother to reconsider your sister’s punishment in a way that doesn’t involve another living creature. I’m not sure what “war” you think would result if you offered to take the cat in temporarily—would your sister be angry with you? Your mother?—but if you’re willing and able to care for it, that would be a tremendously kind and thoughtful gesture.
Q. Too empathetic?: I’m naturally a very empathetic person. However, lately I’ve been finding it to have a very negative impact on my life and quite debilitating. Seeing panhandlers on the street always makes me feel bad—but recently, after being asked for change as I was getting into my car, I ended up feeling so bad I cried the entire way home. Yesterday, reading one-star product reviews for a potential purchase sent me into a tailspin: “Someone came up with an idea for a product, and got it made, and it sucks. How horrible for them!” Little things set me off because I go through a worst-case scenario thought process, which always leads to me crying and feeling terrible for hours.
This is not healthy or productive, but I just don’t know what to do about it. I’ve tried not dwelling on things for very long, but it’s not working.
A: While you may not be able to change your fairly sensitive nature, a lot of what you’re describing has more to do with habit and where your attention is focused, rather than something wholly outside of your control. That’s good news, I think! It makes sense that simply “trying not to do what seems to come naturally” hasn’t worked for you; most of the time, adopting a Walk-It-Off approach to one’s own feelings is ineffective. I don’t recommend it.
I think you might find the practice of mindfulness techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy particularly useful. They’re both strategies for interrupting repetitive, automatic thoughts, and they’re free and fairly easy to learn. You can see a counselor to walk you through cognitive behavioral therapy or find a workbook and various techniques available for free online; similarly, any search engine results for mindfulness techniques (specifically focused on distraction and negative thinking) will net prodigious results. You don’t have to beat yourself up or try to deny your nature; there are numerous resources to help you figure out how to get through the day with your emotional reserves intact.