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 voicemail 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. Dealing with #MeToo as a survivor: I don’t know how to deal with #MeToo as a rape survivor. I’m feeling triggered and angry. Social media is a big part of my job, so I can’t just turn it off all day, but I’m not sure what to do. I keep finding myself going to the bathroom and sobbing.
My boss posted on our Facebook page about how “proud” he was of all the women who’ve been sharing their stories and I almost lost it. I haven’t talked to many people about what happened to me, including several members of my family, and I don’t want to “come out” as a survivor through a hashtag.
At the same time, I really want to respond. I want to tell people that survivors don’t owe them their stories. I don’t want people to come away from this display of mutual pain and think that by posting a hashtag, they’ve done enough. I’m feeling really grossed out by all of the men who seem to have never realized that this was a thing until now. I understand why people would want to post, but it just makes me furious. It makes me feel like everything I’ve gone through has been reduced down to a hashtag so that it can trend on social media. Any advice for how I can get through the day? Am I obligated to speak out on my social media page even if that means outing myself as a survivor? What should I do?
A: You are not obligated to share your own trauma simply because there is a social media campaign going on. If absolutely nothing else, I hope you know that you do not ever have to share your story unless you feel safe and comfortable doing so, and you want to share your story. I know you can’t turn social media off at work, but I hope you can set times throughout the day where you allow yourself to take a break and either reach out to a friend for support or just take a few minutes to be quiet and not absorb further stories of trauma. It is, I think, a good thing when people are able to speak to their own experiences of assault and rape, but it absolutely does not follow that anyone who declines to do the same is somehow “less” brave or inspiring.
Q. Who really has a problem?: I live in one of the areas of the country that was significantly affected by the natural disasters that hit over the past month or so. Although I used to really enjoy this column, I now find myself reading the questions and feeling extremely angry, as I don’t think that the issue of whether or not someone may or may not have said something mean to a co-worker qualifies as a real problem when I personally have no power, have to stand in line for hours to buy food, and had to send our son to my parents’ house so he could attend school.
I just want to tell people to get over themselves and be happy and grateful that the only problems they are facing are those. They have food, water, and a warm and dry place to sleep. Everything else is meaningless. I know that we’ll get through this and the petty stuff will again be important someday, but right now reading some of the questions in your column just makes me want to punch people. Please help with some perspective.
A: I’m so sorry to hear about the destruction to your home, and I’m glad to hear that your son is somewhere safe. I hope very much that you are able to access all the help that you need to rebuild. This may sound flippant, but I can assure you that I mean this sincerely: If reading the column right now makes you want to punch people, give yourself the gift of taking a break from reading this column! The world is, and has always been, full of problems on a variety of scales, and I don’t believe there is ever going to be a time where natural disasters, food insecurity, and personal devastation are not an issue. It’s profoundly important to both engage with big-picture issues like disaster relief, and it’s also true that everyone needs help dealing with co-workers, relatives, their own feelings, and petty annoyances.
Some of the questions folks ask here are huge—how does one deal with an abusive family, how does one recover from a personal violation or an act of violence—and some of them are on a much smaller scale. It can be terribly useful to take a step back from one’s own preoccupations and map them against the problems of the world in order to maintain perspective and correct for selfishness and myopia, but “be grateful the problem you have isn’t a different problem” isn’t a sufficient holistic answer either. What you’re going through is serious, painful, and real, and I hope you give yourself the time and permission to get what you need. If that means taking a break from reading about other people’s problems for a while, you absolutely should. You’ve got a lot on your plate right now.
Q. Wake etiquette: Due to unfortunate circumstances, I’ve recently attended a number of wakes. Am I obligated to kneel before the casket and say a brief prayer? I’d been taught that this was the “polite” thing to do, but it feels disingenuous now that I no longer subscribe to any religion. I’m sure the grievers don’t notice or care either way, but should I continue to fake pray?
A: You can kneel in front of a casket and briefly acknowledge the sadness of someone’s death or think about your grieving friend’s needs—you are not “fake praying,” you are having a genuine moment of reflection. I don’t think you’re doing anything you need to change. If you would prefer not to kneel, you can simply stand for a moment or two of silence, then drop back.
Q. Should I be concerned?: My girlfriend recently bought a vibrator for us to use together (we’re both women). However, it’s been a couple months and we haven’t used it together once. We have had sex several times, but once we were in bed and I suggested we use it and she said it had dead batteries.
Should it upset or worry me that she is clearly using it on her own time? I don’t want to be controlling of her body. We are always together—it’s not as if I’m away on trips and she is lonely—so why wouldn’t she just initiate sex with me rather than using the vibrator? It makes me feel scared and offended—is she not satisfied by me? What’s next, cheating? I know how ridiculous that may sound, but it’s just a fear and I don’t know how to handle this.
A: Talk to your girlfriend about this. You don’t have to open with “we haven’t used this vibrator together and now I’m anxious about whether you want to have sex with me or might cheat,” but she may very well have no idea that this has brought up so many feelings of insecurity and anxiety for you. It’s possible that the “dead batteries” line was an excuse to avoid something she didn’t know how to discuss at the time, and it’s also possible that the batteries really were dead and she didn’t consider the matter urgent. Tell her what you want rather than hoping she will offer it without prompting. (For what it’s worth, masturbation and sex are not the same thing; the fact that your girlfriend sometimes masturbates with a vibrator is not necessarily a referendum on how she feels about having sex with you. If your sex life is otherwise satisfying, then I think this is a fear you can let go of.) Whatever the outcome, you have to share what you’re thinking, what you’re afraid of, and what you want with her.
Q. Too-nice therapist: I am a 45-year-old woman struggling with several issues. I have returned to dating as a middle-aged woman, but the men I meet are manipulative and tend to dump me after a few weeks. I drink more than I should (three to five glasses of wine nightly). I also spend a couple hours a day on dating and kink websites. I feel lost.
I started seeing a therapist five months ago after being “ghosted” by a man who was married. It felt good to vent at the time, but now, after months of weekly appointments, I feel like therapy is worthless. Rather than address my aforementioned issues, we talk about “self care.” Should I dump my therapist?
A: Sure! Find a different therapist, and make it clear that your goals are to challenge your own issues of neediness and insecurity, to re-evaluate your relationship to alcohol and distraction, and to stop repeating some of your classic patterns in relationship. (I should warn you, it’s possible that after a few weeks with a therapist who doesn’t sign off on all of your choices as self-care that you’ll find a reason to resent them too. That is to be expected! Don’t take that as a sign that you’re seeing the wrong therapist!)
Q. Daughter dislikes step-mom: My ex-husband and I split up over five years ago. My daughter was just turning 4 and had a difficult time, but I did everything I could to make the transition easy. We never did anything “officially,” and although her father was horrible to me, he was an excellent dad and I supported them seeing each other every chance they could.
In the beginning, he would only take her for a few hours some days and overnight occasionally. Eventually, he started dating someone, and we developed a clear schedule of when our daughter would stay over at his house. This worked well, and things finally settled.
We still try to enforce this schedule, but things have become difficult. My ex married a woman who is lukewarm at best and my daughter has not taken to her. She loves her dad, and wants to see him, but does not want to stay overnight because she says “Trish” doesn’t make her feel comfortable in their home. He’s frustrated as he only gets her two nights a week and is tired of hearing her cry at night asking to come back home.
I don’t know what the appropriate course of action is. She is in no way getting harmed, abused, or mistreated; she just prefers to be home with me. I did take her to see a counselor and was told that she has adjusted very well and should not be dictating where she goes. My mother feels that she should be with me 100 percent of the time and makes me feel guilty every time she goes to her father’s, which is not helping me decide what’s best for her either. I really don’t know what the legal rules for these kinds of things are. Can you help?
A: Why don’t you two make it official and develop a legally enforceable custody agreement? It sounds like this “unofficial” arrangement has not worked for you in a number of different ways, not least because your ex’s response to hearing his daughter cry because she doesn’t feel comfortable in his home is to get “frustrated.”
What’s keeping you from making this official and drawing up a formal custody agreement? If it’s financially impossible, can you and your ex have a conversation as co-parents about how to improve the situation? What does your daughter mean when she says Trish makes her uncomfortable? Ask her questions about how Trish treats her, what she says, and what overnights there are like. Make it clear she’s not going to get in trouble, that you just want to know more about what it feels like to sleep at her dad’s house.
If ultimately you and your ex decide to put overnights on hold for a while, that does not mean you should revert to 100 percent sole custody; the fact that your mother is angling for that and trying to convince you your daughter apparently shouldn’t see her father at all is troubling. Your mother should take several steps back, and you and your ex need to spend time figuring out what’s best for your daughter. If you can’t do that informally (and your history together suggests that you can’t), you should probably call in a mediator or custody lawyer.
Q. Re: Who really has a problem?: As a legal aid lawyer, I’ve felt similarly to what this letter writer appears to be feeling—getting frustrated with people who complain about non-problems, while I work all day with victims of domestic violence, hungry children, and homeless families.
However, I’ve also learned that feelings of anger and frustration can also be symptoms of primary or secondary trauma. You’re right: It’s nice when people can keep things in perspective, but it’s a problem when others’ inability to do that elicits a visceral reaction. I would advise some self-care or therapy for the letter writer, so s/he can learn to keep others’ (potential) lack of perspective in perspective! And it’s also important to remember that just because someone is writing into an advice column with a problem doesn’t mean they think it is catastrophic.
A. That’s such a helpful perspective; thank you for this. Feeling this degree of frustration about the (presumed) inner lives of others is likely a sign that the letter writer is feeling overwhelmed, under-resourced, and like they’re not getting all the help and support they need right now.
Q. Unintended revelations: I am a college-age woman who recently got out of an almost yearlong polyamorous relationship with another woman and a man (they were pre-involved for years). It was a spectacularly awful breakup. At the moment, the male partner and I are dating, but the other woman is out due to attempted physical assault and anger issues. (Yes, she’s been to therapy but stopped.)
I just found out from my male partner that the woman is a camgirl. She started shortly before she and I met, withheld that information from me purposefully, and is now very popular and ridiculously financially successful.
I have no moral qualms with camming, but I am floored. This is a really big thing to not mention in a relationship, right? Over the time we dated, she had close relationships with patrons—I don’t know specifics but there were potential “custom” videos, and she went to meet a “fan” over summer break but didn’t even try to visit me. I am disturbed emotionally. I think she has put a lot more effort into this than she ever did our relationship, and this feels a lot like cheating to me.
Where do I go from here? Was it cheating? Do I ask her why she didn’t tell me (she doesn’t know that I know)? Is this emotional disturbance and betrayal “big enough” for me to seek counseling?
A: “Having feelings” is a good enough reason to seek counseling. You’re going through a lot right now, and you have every right to feel a great deal of pain after a breakup with someone who attempted to commit an act of violence. There is, however, no good reason for you to talk to your ex about her work; part of the painful but necessary work of a breakup is realizing that you will not move forward by rehashing and relitigating aspects of your former relationship with your ex. There are a lot of reasons why someone engaging in sex- or sex-adjacent work might not feel comfortable disclosing to a partner (the fact that your current boyfriend disclosed that information to you only after your breakup with her makes me wonder if he had her express permission), but you certainly have a right to your own feelings about how this revelation has affected you. The right place to process them is with a therapist, not with your ex, particularly because you know her to have problems with anger and violence. It’s unclear whether she tried to hurt you, your boyfriend, or someone else, but please take care of yourself, go see a counselor, and give her a wide berth.
Mallory Ortberg: A heavy dose of questions, this week, my friends! Be well, and take care. See you next Monday.