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.
Mallory Ortberg: Ahoy-hoy! Let’s get started.
Q. My choice: My husband and I have been married for a year and have a new baby. We were talking about abortion in the context of news this week when my husband casually asked me if I had ever had an abortion. I changed the subject.
The thing is, I have had two abortions, both when I was a teenager. My husband is pro-choice, as am I, and I’m neither ashamed of nor regretful about my decisions. I’m not sure why, but I just really don’t want my husband to know. It was during a tough time in my life, and I would rather put it behind me forever. I know this is a big thing to keep from him, but would it be OK if I kept that part of my past secret?
A. It is perfectly OK for any married person not to share every single detail of their earlier life with their spouse, particularly if that detail does not materially change anything about their present marriage. If you don’t want to talk about it with him, you don’t have to. There’s a big difference between having a conversation about abortion in the news with someone who holds pro-choice ideals and talking about your own history with abortion with your husband—one is much more fraught and potentially exhausting than the other. If you don’t want to talk about it with him, you don’t have to.
Q. Naked around niece: I grew up with three sisters and one bathroom—I am not shy about my body. My long-term boyfriend and I were visiting his family, and I decided to take a long, hot bath. His 8-year-old niece “Lola” knocked on the door and asked if she could use the toilet since the other was being used. Without a second thought, I told Lola she could, but I was in the bath. I didn’t think anything about it until later in the visit, when Lola mentioned my tattoo and her mother asked her where she saw it, she said in the bath. Her mother’s response was bizarre to me: She took me aside and told me it was “odd and inappropriate” for her daughter to see me naked. She questioned my judgment, saying I should have gotten out and put a towel around before letting Lola in. I asked if she was kidding, and it made the situation worse. The rest of our visit was not much fun after that.
I have been in Lola’s life since she was 5. We are both girls; it wasn’t like my boyfriend and I were having sex and got caught. I always thought my boyfriend’s sister was a bit rigid, but this feels ridiculous. My boyfriend agrees with me but worries about how this is going to affect our holidays, when we visit them again. He asked me to make peace with his sister, but I don’t know how to with a straight face. What can I say that will keep the peace?
A. I mean, get your laughter out of the way beforehand if you have that much difficulty controlling your temper, and then say what you need to say to her. Your sister-in-law has made a pretty simple request of you, which is not to let her kids in the bathroom while you’re naked. She’s not calling you a predator, and she’s not asking you to share her views on incidental nudity, or to replicate them in your own home. She just wants you to put a towel on next time, or tell the kids to wait five minutes. You are capable of doing this, and of doing this without laughing. Apologize for not taking her seriously the first time and for laughing at her request, and let her know that you’ll be able to abide by her simple request on future visits.
Q. Stepbrother: Adam and I were briefly stepsiblings during the summer I turned 16 and he turned 18. Our parents divorced less than a year later. My father is a horrible husband but a great dad and kept in touch with Adam after the divorce. He helped him pay for college and got him a job in his field. I heard all of this over the years but didn’t see Adam again until my dad’s wedding (marriage No. 5) 10 years later. He was hot, and we hooked up. Since then, Adam and I have texted and even drove to visit each other in our respective cities. It is crazy, scary, and utterly wonderful—we are inching our way into a real relationship.
How do we break the news to our families? I have told a few close girlfriends and have gotten Cruel Intentions jokes, but more than one of them are uncomfortable with the relationship. I know Adam is afraid that us as a couple might destroy his relationship with my dad (his biological father is a no-show). I am afraid of losing Adam. I have never felt this synched with a guy before or been so eager to hear about someone’s else day. I don’t know what to do.
A: If it helps, I think your situation more directly tracks with the former stepsiblings from Clueless rather than Cruel Intentions, and things worked out pretty well for Cher and Josh. I can see why your romantic situation might strike your friends as slightly more complicated than usual, but there’s nothing uncomfortable about it in terms of direct family connections. You spent less than half a year as stepsiblings and didn’t get together until you were in your late 20s; there’s nothing especially scandalous or incestuous going on between the two of you. Whatever you two decide to tell your families, you should be sure you’re both on the same page before speaking to your respective parents. You’re not revealing some big secret or confessing to anything untoward—you reconnected with a guy you briefly knew in high school, and now the two of you are dating. That’s it!
Q. Family doesn’t approve of costume: My son is almost 4 years old. For Halloween, he asked to dress as a female character from a popular children’s show. It’s the only thing he requested to be, so we purchased the costume. The day it arrived, he was beyond excited. He tried it on immediately, and of course we snapped a few photos.
Later that evening, while texting with my brother, I sent him one of the photos. His immediate response was, “Is that a dress? Wow.” Since it can be hard to discern tone via text, I asked for clarification, and he confirmed that he indeed doesn’t approve, saying, “It’s not natural.” I responded that it’s just a costume and my son can wear whatever he wants, and ended the conversation.
I expected to run into folks with disapproving glances, but I certainly did not expect this response from my own brother. Any advice for moving forward? As it is, my brother and I only talk a couple of times a month.
A: I think you’ve handled the situation beautifully. You’ve already responded in an appropriate, clear way to your brother’s knee-jerk reaction (it’s not natural for anyone to wear a Halloween costume! Nature doesn’t come together in a universal pageant to celebrate Halloween and hand out candy, you know?). If and when your brother tries to shove his oar in again about gender roles, you can feel free to offer a similar response to the one you just gave him. I hope you and your son have a great time trick-or-treating next week.
Q. Re: My choice: As a married woman myself, I don’t think you owe your husband your entire history before you met him. It would be great if you felt comfortable enough to open up about your teen pregnancies and subsequent abortions, but you don’t owe him this information. That said, is it possible that the fact you’re having such a hard time with this is a sign that you haven’t fully unpacked these experiences? Maybe exploring this with a counselor could help you to get some closure on the subject (for your own peace of mind).
A: You’ll almost never catch me coming down on the side of “Don’t go to therapy over this,” so I’m throwing my weight behind you on this suggestion. That said, I don’t want the letter writer to feel that they are somehow obligated to process whatever happened to them as a teenager and work their way up to telling their husband. You have the option of talking about this confidentially with a therapist, today or in five years or 10—whenever you want to, not because you “ought to” be able to discuss that part of your history with your husband, but because you have the right to support and a nonjudgmental ear, if you ever want it.
Q. Money and love: I live with my long-term boyfriend in my house. I make significantly more money than him and am also far more conservative on finances; I pay all my bills and put 15 percent of every check into savings before I make any “want” purchases. When my boyfriend moved in, we discussed and agreed that he would take over a few bills but concentrate on getting his savings built up.
It has been three months, and he hasn’t saved a penny. Instead, he is blowing his money on video games, trips, and expensive hobbies. He also has been short on bills, and I have to cover them, but it is never more than $20 or $50, and he pays me back. Our last huge fight was when he leased a brand-new truck even though he has a perfectly running, paid-off older Honda. He said I was trying to control him and that I wasn’t his mother. I yelled that I might as well be, since he was acting like a teenager and living rent free under my roof. I know I went over the line and apologized, but his behavior is the same. I am baffled because he was never like this when he lived on his own or with roommates.
A: I think you are getting a sneak preview of what he’s going to be like as your roommate, and you should figure out whether or not you would like to keep dating him.
It’s always painful when someone reveals a previously unseen side of themselves, but your boyfriend isn’t taking financial advantage of you by accident, or because he just doesn’t know any better. He’s borrowing money, going back on his word, and spending cash on new gadgets, then blowing up when you try to express concern. The only upside is that he’s revealed this side of himself a few short months into living together. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that your boyfriend (apparently) makes less than you do, or even that he isn’t as financially conservative. But there is something wrong about the fact that he moved in with you ostensibly to build up his savings account and has decided instead to buy Bonestorm and a new car and say, “Hey, I’m actually 20 bucks short this month, can you spot me the cash? I’ll pay you back tomorrow, I promise.” This isn’t an issue of communication, it’s an issue of character, and my best advice to you is to break up with him.
Q. Creeper dad: Over the past year or so, my dad has started making comments to me about women he finds attractive. I am in my mid-30s, married with kids, and I know people can sometimes lose their filters as they get older, but this is kind of skeeving me out. It’s anything from “I’d watch anything where Charlize Theron wears a tight outfit,” to, after I commented on our waitress’s pants, “It wasn’t the pants I was focused on” (insert eyebrow waggle). He is very liberal and raised me with strong feminist values. Am I just being overly sensitive here? If not, how can I let him know to knock off the gag-a-rific comments?
A: “I don’t like it when you comment about other women’s bodies to me. Please stop.”
Q. Re: Naked around niece: I’m the “fun-to-make-fun-of” parent in my family. You may just be one in a litany of people who tell her her decisions are strange, weird, rigid, unnecessary, et cetera (the holidays are just the worst, too!). Have a bit of empathy for the difficult task of trying to bring up a good kid with nothing solid to go on except some million-year-old instincts that don’t really help you decide on iPad or no iPad. I’d offer this: “We have different boundaries and I honestly did not believe this would be an issue when I did it. I am sorry and I’ll make sure to respect boundaries you communicate in the future.” But you have to believe it when you say it. It’s her kid. When it’s your kid, you get to be whatever about it.
A: That’s a helpful way of acknowledging their genuine differences of opinion while also offering an explanation for the letter writer’s first, not-especially-helpful reaction. Thanks for this!
Q. Relationship breakup: I am a 59-year-old male, and four months ago experienced a breakup with my 57-year-old girlfriend of four years. It was for me sudden and unexpected; and by a text message—who does that?! I was shocked and devastated. I was happy with our relationship and looking forward to it continuing and possibly becoming a permanent partnership. I begged for the opportunity to meet and discuss her decision in person, but she refused. I thought we had always been honest and open with each other, but apparently I was wrong about that.
I’m still cycling through love-and-hate emotions, wishing we could somehow get back together but knowing rationally that any person that would treat me with such disdain is probably someone I should avoid. I still really miss her, however, and can’t seem to move on. Since breaking up, she’s texted me twice to inquire how I was. I responded that I didn’t wish to share that with her, but I would be open to meeting to discuss our breakup and then taking things from there. She never replied. I’ve recently tried dating again, but find I have no motivation to seriously pursue another relationship. So I spend most of my time alone, not miserable but not happy, either.
A: There’s nothing wrong with feeling despondent and angsty a mere four months out from the surprising and unexpected end of a four-year relationship. It is a perfectly reasonable response! You are very much on a normal post-breakup timeline. You’re probably not going to get a straight answer out of your ex as to why she ended your relationship, and while some self-examination can prove helpful, I’d caution you against endlessly replaying your relationship looking for signs of things to come.
If you don’t feel ready to date again, give yourself permission to not date for a while. That doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to time alone either—call your friends and ask them if they want to get coffee and talk, or go to a movie. Your social options are not just “have a girlfriend” or “be alone,” and you should reach out for as much emotional support as you can.