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 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: Ghostly mother-in-law: My in-laws are unbelievably superstitious. My mother-in-law believes she’s psychic, my father-in-law believes her, and my husband—otherwise rational—turns we can’t know for sure! credulous around her. I find the stream of insights and ghost sightings grating, but they can believe what they want—until it reaches the end of my nose.
My husband and I are looking to buy a house, and his mother is constantly bothering me with her visions of “dark auras” and “bad vibes” about the houses. She’s not even with us. Apparently she can tell a duplex has more ghosts than Disney’s Haunted House from two states away.
I’d just tune her out, but my husband says we should listen to keep the peace. Apparently she won’t ever visit if the house is “haunted.” My husband caving to her is the worst part of it. Is this going to be how it is going forward? It’s a house! A mortgage! The only thing to tie us together more would be a child. So I’m wondering if maybe we need to rethink more than just the “haunted house.” Or am I being unreasonable?
A: Oh, boy. Yeah, if your husband’s response to this has been, “Sorry, we’re going to have to pass on this affordable duplex until my mom is convinced it’s not chockablock with ghosts,” then that’s a bad strategy. His idea of “keeping the peace” is financially and relationally unreasonable, and you should make it clear to him that while you won’t go out of your way to antagonize her or make fun of her conviction that she is some sort of real-estate medium, you’re also not going to entertain endless requests to put off buying a home until she can sweep it for signs of the paranormal.
You ask if this is how it’s going to be going forward. I’m not a psychic like your mother-in-law, but my guess is that if your husband is willing to indulge some pretty intrusive behavior from her about home-buying, it’s going to be a pattern that will crop up again. So it’s good to address it now. You and your husband don’t have to agree on everything, but you do have to deal with your in-laws as a team and back one another up. It’s one thing to say “we can’t know for sure” about the existence of ghosts; it’s quite another to say, “because we can’t know for sure if ghosts exists, we should pass on every house my mother believes to be haunted.” One is a general, open-ended statement about the nature of possibility; the other is granting his mother total purchasing power in your marriage.
Q. Daughter’s friend being in wedding: My 27-year-old daughter and her best friend, Katie, have been best friends since they were 4. Katie practically grew up in our house and is like a daughter to me. My daughter recently got engaged to her fiancé and announced that Katie would be the maid of honor (Katie’s boyfriend is also a good friend of my future son-in-law). The problem is that Katie walks with a pretty severe limp due to a birth defect (not an underlying medical issue). She has no problem wearing high heels and has already been fitted for the dress, but I still think it will look unsightly if she’s in the wedding procession limping ahead of my daughter. I mentioned this to my daughter and suggested that maybe Katie could take video or hand out programs (while sitting) so she doesn’t ruin the aesthetic aspect of the wedding. My daughter is no longer speaking to me (we were never that close), but this is her big wedding and I want it to be perfect. All of the other bridesmaids will look gorgeous walking down the aisle with my daughter. Is it wrong to have her friend sit out?
A: I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around this letter. I encourage you to reread it and to ask yourself that time-honored question, “Do I sound like a villain in a Reese Witherspoon movie?” You are, presumably, sympathetic to your own situation and are invested in making sure that you come across as reasonable and as caring as possible, and yet you have written a letter indicting yourself at every turn. This girl is “like a daughter” to you, and yet you want to shove her to the side of your other daughter’s wedding just because she walks with a limp. Your daughter’s wedding will be perfect with Katie as a full and honored member of the bridal party. A limp is not a fly in the ointment; it’s a part of Katie’s life. It is not only wrong to have asked your daughter to consider excluding her best friend over this—it is ableist, and cruel, and it speaks to a massive failure of empathy, compassion, and grace on your part. You must and should apologize to your daughter immediately, and I encourage you to profoundly reconsider the orientation of your heart.
Q. Actual benefits: I am in medical school, which means I basically live and sleep in scrubs. I have no time for a real relationship nor any desire for one. I would actually like decent sex with someone I could trust, but I keep getting sucked into the Girlfriend Zone despite repeatedly saying I only want be friends with benefits. My last three ended with the guys getting upset for not doing the emotional stuff we agreed was not on the table (meeting the parents, getting upset for forgetting a birthday, and not reminding him to pick up his dry cleaning). I don’t want to look for random hook-ups or have an affair with assholes who are married, I just want an honest sex buddy. How the hell do I find one?
A: I think you’re doing everything right. I wish that always translated into getting exactly what one wants when one wants it, but unfortunately it doesn’t.
You’re meeting guys, being honest about what you want and what you’re willing to give, and if your expectations don’t line up, you end the relationship. Continue to broadcast what you’re looking for loudly and clearly, and good luck finding someone who’s completely on board with what you want—not looking to grandfather-clause you into being his girlfriend.
Q. Fear of large bully breeds: My earliest memory, unfortunately, is of being attacked by a large Rottweiler–German shepherd mix. I still have scars on my shoulder and hips where the dog mauled me, and all of my life, I have had a visceral reaction to being in close proximity with large bully breeds. When they are close, I feel a rush of adrenaline and start to panic almost immediately.
My problem is that I often encounter large bully breed–type dogs in my apartment building and neighborhood. I typically move to another sidewalk to avoid being close to them, but sometimes, in my hallways in particular, I can’t avoid them and I try to move past as quickly as possible. Sometimes, their owners seemed offended by my reaction. They allow their dog enough slack on the leash to come over and say hi, but I move along quickly. I am a dog-lover, and I don’t want to offend anyone, especially because the dogs are more than likely friendly and will not hurt me. Unfortunately, I can’t control my fear.
Is there a polite way to let the owners know that I need space? I know many bully breed owners feel their dogs are stigmatized, and it is not my intention to contribute to that. I just want space.
A: Stigma is one thing, but you’re not attempting to ban any breeds or stop these owners from having the dogs they do. You’ve suffered from a brutal attack that left physical as well as psychic scars, and you have every right to cross the street or move past a dog quickly. You can smile at the owner in question, say hello, and if they seem about to encourage their dog to come over to greet you—which is impolite to do to someone who’s clearly afraid without asking—say, “Sorry, I’ve got to keep moving.” There’s nothing rude about what you’re doing.
Q. What now?: Almost a year ago I met an amazing guy, “L,” at the college we attend. I have Asperger’s syndrome and I’m extremely shy, so I hadn’t made any friends at my school even though it was my third year, but somehow we quickly became close friends. I loved his sunny personality and how easy he was to talk to (plus he’s extremely attractive), but I thought he just saw me as a friend and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I never told him how I felt.
A few weeks ago, we were hanging out the night before I left to study abroad for a semester. When we were saying goodbye, he said I was amazing and, “Are you from this Earth? How did you come into my life?” Then he kissed me! I was absolutely thrilled, but I was also nervous and told him it was my first kiss. He said, “Really? Then let me kiss you again,” and kissed me and said he found me “incredibly sexy,” so he didn’t seem to be freaked out that I’m 21 and just had my first kiss. But since then I’ve barely heard from him. I’ve texted him three times but he always takes days to respond, and when he does, it’s just something blandly nice, even when I tell him how much I miss him.
What do you think is going on and what should I do?
A: I have no idea what is going on, and I think the only person who does is “L.” There’s nothing in your letter that suggests a possible explanation, so you should ask him directly. The two of you are already friends, so it’s perfectly appropriate to follow up with a request for clarification. “I had a really good time with you a few weeks ago, and I really enjoyed our kiss, and I’d like to go out with you again. Do you want that too?” If he says yes, you can talk a little more about his sudden hot-and-cold shift; if he prevaricates or continues to put you off, then you can chalk it up to one of the strange mysteries of life—sometimes people change their minds suddenly, and we don’t always know why—and let him go.
Q. Re: Ghostly mother-in-law: She would hate mine, where the prior owner passed away! Auras and vibes can be fixed. When you find the place you want, tell her you understand her concerns but you have to make the best financial decision for yourselves. Then ask for her housewarming gift to you two to be the sage to burn and what words you should say to cleanse your home.
A: That’s a deft compromise! My worry, though, is that it invites further interference from a woman who already appears to be excessively catered to—and if, as I suspect, what she likes most about all these ghost claims is directing where and when the letter writer and her husband buy a home, her response may be, “There’s no way to get rid of these ghosts, they’re immune to cleansing; you’re going to have to move.” But it’s worth passing along, and the letter writer may wish to consider it.
Q. Sisters and sex: I am a 21-year-old gay guy living with a bunch of roommates, including my boyfriend. My sister is 18 and living at home but fighting with our parents. Basically, she is having sex with her boyfriend and it is driving our parents nuts. They don’t want him over and want her home every night by 9 p.m. She wants out.
My sister wants to move in with me. I don’t necessarily like her boyfriend or the idea of my baby sister having a sex life, but I had a lot more latitude when I was living at home despite getting in more trouble.
My sister is smart and works full time. I know she is reliable and clean (better than the last two roommates we had). I’d rather her be here than moving in with strangers or her boyfriend (he isn’t dangerous, just lazy and loud). I am worried that I would get dragged into the family civil war. My boyfriend tells me I need to support my sister since my parents are being sexist and paternalistic. What should I do?
A: What’s wrong with living with strangers or friends of her own? You presumably have a good time living with your roommates, and there’s no reason your sister can’t strike out and find like-minded housemates of her own, especially if she’s already working full time. If you’d like to have your sister as a roommate, then you should consider asking her to join the lease, but you aren’t obligated to let her move in with you when it sounds like she has other options. Since you dislike her boyfriend so much, it might prove difficult if she moves in and has him over to visit all the time. You can offer her emotional support and make it clear you disagree with your parents’ behavior without offering to live together, unless you think that would be a genuinely good idea.
Q. Guests sit on our bed: My husband and I live in a studio flat, which means our bed is in plain sight. Whenever we invite people over they just sit in our bed—when there are more than enough chairs and a very comfortable couch. I find it very rude (my mum taught me that I should never even enter other people’s bedrooms without their invitation, let alone sit in their beds), but I don’t know if I’m overreacting? If not, should I say anything?
A: Ask them to sit on the couch! It is perfectly reasonable to not want guests to sit on your bed, and it is not at all rude to say something if they do.
Q. Heartbreak voyeur: I have a really hard time moving on from breakups, particularly divorce, and I’m not even talking about my own. I’m talking about friends, relatives, and people that aren’t even in my life anymore. I know I shouldn’t be so invested in other people’s lives.
I would never bring it up with the parties involved, but seeing pictures of former friends and relatives happily with people outside the marriage I met them in makes me anxious. I worry they are going to hurt their new partner, and that they are using the new person to distract themselves from things they really need to work out, calling it love instead of figuring out why their original marriage ended in the first place. I worry they will also hurt themselves in the process.
I know this is an issue for therapy—which I can tell you I am already in—but is this something anyone else does? Does anyone else get really sad and take on the pain they think the other person and their children should be or might be feeling? It’s like constantly feeling heartbreak that isn’t even mine.
A: I think some people do some of the time, yes. This sounds like a fairly extreme version of friendly concern, and I’m glad to hear you’re addressing it in therapy.
It’s one thing to periodically worry about a friend’s romantic relationships and wish to see them happy and healthy, but this constant fixation is unhelpful both to you and your friends. Whatever this preoccupation is doing for you—perhaps it distracts you from problems you’d rather not think about, giving you the illusion of control in a disordered world—it’s better to find methods of letting go, rather than digging in. It’s fitting that you say you fear your friends are using their new partners to “distract them from things they really need to work out” when it seems like that may very well be what you’re doing to yourself.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you here next week!