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: Good morning! Let’s get cracking.
Q. STD—to tell or not to tell?: I just ended a relationship that I stayed in far too long. I felt like I needed to make it work because he gave me herpes, which made me feel like damaged goods. I realized nothing was worth staying in that relationship for, so I ended it and resigned myself to the fact that I would be single forever. Now there’s a guy I’ve been friends with that has been pursuing me since finding out I’m single. He really likes me and I like him as well. I’m nowhere near ready to date and it’s perfect because he’s living out of state now and won’t be back in my area for another eight months. We’ve been talking daily and getting to know each other. I can tell he’s falling for me.
When should I tell him about the STD? Do I let the long-distance relationship develop and tell him once we actually can be together? Typically, those discussions happen once sex is happening, but that won’t happen for us for at least another eight months. Or should I tell him now in case it’s a deal breaker? I also don’t want to go just sharing this information; it’s going to be extremely difficult for me to say and I just don’t want people knowing (hence my single forever plan).
A: It’s always a good day if I get to reassure someone that herpes, oral or genital, is in fact an extremely common, extremely manageable condition. More than 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 carry genital herpes, and there is medication to control flare-ups and minimize the risk of transmission; it is not a relationship-destroying burden unique to you, I promise.
Talk to your doctor or make an appointment at a free clinic to learn more about herpes and how to manage your own condition—the more information you have about it, the less helpless and ashamed you’ll feel. You can talk to your maybe-future-boyfriend when you feel prepared to discuss having herpes in a frank, unashamed way, and to discuss what safe sex is going to look like for the two of you.
Q. Pets are not family, are they?: My childless sister “Sally” and I are close but are having a disagreement. Sally lives several hours away, and my 8-year-old daughter and I try to visit for the weekend about once per month. The problem is that my daughter has severe pet allergies, and Sally has two cats and a small terrier.
Though she keeps her house as clean as possible, the very presence of these pets causes my daughter to sneeze, congest, and sometimes break out in hives. I’ve repeatedly asked Sally to either get rid of them or keep them outside during our visits, but Sally claims that though she loves her niece, she can’t keep her pets outside all weekend because the cats are “indoor only,” the dog is too little to stay outside, and coyotes are a danger. She also told me that I was out of line to ask. Was I? They’re only animals, after all, and her niece is family. When she visits us she boards them or gets a sitter, so I don’t see why she can’t do the same when we visit. She’s also suggested that my daughter take allergy medication, but I find that out of line. Is it? How can we resolve this?
A: The most important thing to do here, I think, is to make sure you don’t let a conversation about reasonable accommodation turn into one about whether your sister’s pets “really count” as family. (I’m on your side in the sense that I think a human child’s health is paramount here, but I just don’t think it will be useful to turn this into a litigation on your respective reproductive choices.)
It’s absolutely fair of you to say that the present situation is dangerous to your daughter’s health. It’s also fair that your sister is anxious about leaving her dog outside for an entire weekend, especially if she lives in a coyote-heavy area. If she were willing and able to hire a pet sitter during your visits, that would be an ideal solution, but since she isn’t, you should advocate for your daughter’s health and stay in a nearby hotel so that she can get a full night’s sleep without having difficulty breathing.
Incidentally, unless your daughter has an issue with allergy medication, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t have some at the ready with you, given that she might have a reaction to someone else’s pet at any time. That doesn’t mean she’ll be suddenly able to sleep comfortably in a house with three small furry animals, but there’s nothing wrong with giving someone allergy medicine for an allergy attack.
Q. Tiny house dilemma: My boyfriend and I have been dating for 18 months and moved in together about five months ago. We live in an apartment near the center of town. He’s always been interested in sustainability and environmental issues. Recently, he’s become interested in the tiny house movement, and we’ve now had a few conversations about moving somewhere rural and off-grid.
I love him very much and I don’t want to break up with him, but I’m concerned this move will mean I’d have to revamp or totally give up not only my career, but my lifestyle generally, which I can’t say I’m keen to do in a hurry. He’s convinced that going tiny is essential to his happiness, and he feels trapped by our urban 9-to-5 lifestyle. Any suggestions on how we can reach some kind of compromise?
A: Oh, boy. There’s plenty to be said about the dynamics undergirding the recent “tiny house” phenomenon, but the bottom line is that if you have even a few reservations about living in a miniature cabin somewhere totally removed from society with your boyfriend, please err on the side of caution and don’t do it.
You don’t have to break up just because you don’t live together, and the two of you should certainly have more long-term conversations about the future, but if you don’t consider the move feasible or desirable, then absolutely don’t move with him.
Q. Dreaming of something more: I am married to a man who makes over $150,000 a year. He works from home, enjoys his work, and has many opportunities to make more money in the future. I, however, work long hours at a job I thoroughly despise and commute for over an hour each way to make less than $35,000 a year.
I minored in art in college and would like to continue making art to sell. This is not an option with my current job; by the time I get home I barely have time or energy to cook dinner and clean the house. My husband has suggested I quit my job or find a part-time gig and focus on my art. We both know I would be happier that way. What is holding me back is that so many of my friends and family think this is a bad idea. They say I will not succeed as an artist and will essentially be giving up on my career. Should I follow my dreams or stick to the 9-to-5?
A: If you want to give up on your career—and it sounds like you do, given that it pays badly, makes you miserable, and saddles you with a terrible commute—then I think you should probably, you know, give up on your career. Your friends are right in that trying to make a living (or even an approximation of a living) as a freelance artist is risky and probably unlikely, but if you and your husband can easily absorb the loss of your small income, then it’s a calculated risk you should consider taking. If the artist route works out—great! If it doesn’t, you can try to find that part-time job and do your creative work on the side, and maybe even carve out a new career in a different field that you don’t hate. You’re lucky to have options right now, and you should take advantage of that. Good luck!
Q. Loveless or commitment-phobic?: I’m a 23-year-old gay woman attempting a serious relationship for the first time. Only three months in, I can’t tell if the doubts I have are real or born from a fear of change—I’m introverted and very used to my own company. My 27-year-old girlfriend is cute, caring, artistic, and has a heart of gold; we have compatible relationship ideals and life goals, and on paper our relationship makes sense.
I believe love and long-term romantic relationships should primarily be about care and support, and we’ve got bags of that. At the same time, a dumb part of me wishes for swoony butterflies and googly eyes, for soulmates and destiny. It’s extremely possible I’ve been brainwashed by fan fiction and rom-coms. But what if I’m not? What if I’m settling (in a bad way)? What if I need more? What say you, Prudie?
A: I say, this is a very charming question! I think “a sense of destiny” is perhaps too much to ask from a three-month-old relationship, but I think “a sense of butterflies” is a perfectly reasonable expectation.
If you simply value and admire your girlfriend but don’t feel particularly excited about her, then don’t force yourself to keep dating her just because she’s a good person. Lots of people are good people; that doesn’t mean they’re right for you. It will of course be an additional complication for you to sort through what feelings come from your romantic ideals versus what feelings come from your natural inclination to spend a lot of time alone, but if the best things you feel about your girlfriend are all on paper, I think that’s a pretty good indicator that she is not the girlfriend for you.
Q. Seat belt safety: I recently overheard two co-workers talking and joking about not wearing a seat belt while in a car. One said her fiancé never wears his, while another stated he never wears one. Both expressed the belief that seat belts cause more injuries than they prevent. My young cousin was ejected from his car and killed last year, and I’ve seen what his parents, sister, and our whole family have gone through in dealing with his death, especially knowing a seat belt may have prevented it.
What is an appropriate way to encourage people—co-workers who I’m not particularly close to—to take auto safety seriously without being overly emotional about it?
A: Seat belts do not cause more injuries than they prevent. Their safety and efficacy is well-documented. You can show your friends any number of studies or reports on how many lives are saved each year by properly wearing seat belts; if you’re anxious about bringing up a personal story and making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, you can simply stick to the facts.
Q. Re: STD—to tell or not to tell? I have herpes. I’m happily married and dated a couple of other guys before I met my husband. I think the key is to find the right moment when it looks like things are headed toward a relationship and before they get heavier than smooching. This probably means 1) fewer sex-only relationships, and 2) taking things quite slowly. It’s a trust issue—although this absolutely need not be a big deal, if you expose someone without having told them how can they trust you? Be prepared for questions, be prepared for some silence, have some info handy. Give people time. And if someone can’t deal with it then try your best to see it the same way you’d see someone not being able to deal with the fact that you have a dog or kids. It’s still easy to feel shame around STDs—do your best not to let shame take hold.
A: That’s just lovely advice. Thank you! Shame sometimes feels like the loudest, truest feeling, and I don’t think that it is. I don’t think this means the letter writer has to disqualify themselves from sex-only relationships if that’s what they want, but it does mean that they’ll need to look for people they can trust to have a frank discussion about safe sex before getting into bed together.
Q. Happily widowed: How do I tell people that I just don’t want to date? I have been married twice (divorced, now widowed), for 25 years, half my life. I’m just done. Nothing against men or marriage, I just don’t want to anymore. People seem aghast when they ask me if I’m dating yet, and I say “No, I’m not, and don’t want to.”
Any scripts to suggest? I feel like I’m fine on my own with family, friends, colleagues, and community.
A: I imagine if what you’re saying to the people in your life sounds anything like what you’ve just said to me, you’re following a perfectly appropriate and reasonable script already. The fact that others are responding with shock and horror is due to their own inability to manage an unnecessary emotional response.
If they’re interested in trying to change your mind or litigate your choices, you can simply say, “I’m happy with my choice, and I’m not interested in debating it. Let’s talk about something else.” (If you really want to end the conversation, I suppose you can always go with, “Look, I get that death is scary, but I’m not going to pretend to be interested in dating just because you’re anxious about your own mortality and looking to the social choices of others to act as a collective bulwark against chaos and oblivion.” But save that for when you really want to end the conversation.)
Q. Re: Seat belt safety: The letter writer “overheard” a conversation. They were not part of it. I’d say, especially in the workplace, people should mind their own business unless they are a part of the conversation. I’m sure they have heard all sorts of arguments for wearing a seat belt. A co-worker’s very emotional story will very likely hinder working relationships more than it would potentially help change any habits.
A: That’s a good point! I think it’s helpful to consider this information as a useful approach for future conversations that the letter writer is directly involved in, so that they can be prepared if and when it ever comes up—but it shouldn’t be an incentive to start the conversation based on something they overheard.