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 chat.
Q. Brother’s new GF wants to cure cancer with vegetables: My brother, a widower, is dating a new girlfriend after a long search. She is kind and loving, and I want them to be happy, but there’s one major problem: She has breast cancer, and she’s gone down the naturopathy rabbit hole. She absolutely rejects any form of modern medical treatment because she thinks the so-called “medical establishment” is corrupt and has placed her survival in the hands of “medical intuitives” who tell her to eat vegan foods, open her chakras, and visualize tying ribbons around her liver—I am not making this up.
If she keeps this up, she’s going to die, and my brother will face terrible mourning again. His daughter (a medical technician) and I are appalled, but unfortunately, the girlfriend has the right to make her own (terrible) decisions. Is there anything I can say or do to alter this inevitably fatal outcome?
A: How painful, and how bewildering. You’re right, of course, to recognize that your brother’s girlfriend has the right to manage her own medical care, even if her choice is a dangerous one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t speak to your brother about it—not necessarily with the expectation that he will be able to change her mind, but inasmuch as this is a very serious decision that will surely affect him too. Surely he’s distressed that she is ignoring her own diagnosis and could use some support as he figures out how to take care of his own feelings, as well as encourage her to at least consider seeing a medical doctor once with an open mind. Ask him how he’s doing, and if there’s anything you can do to help him.
Q. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons: A dozen years ago, I met a man through my work. He was older, married, and had a young child. Nevertheless, I fell hopelessly in love with him. We had a brief but intense affair but lost touch after I moved to a satellite office. Over the years, we reconnected a few times at company meetings, and the affair was always hot and heavy, followed by total radio silence once he was back home with the wife. For nearly a decade, I believed this man was the love of my life and that he would finally realize this and we would live happily ever after. When I finally woke up and smelled the coffee and realized he would never leave his wife, I was hurt and felt like I’d been strung along for all those years.
Not long after, I discovered he’d been using drugs. He was fired some months after I reported him to the company. While I think this was the right thing to do (we work in an environment where impairment of any kind can jeopardize the safety of everyone), I did it for the wrong reasons. I did it because I was hurting and not because I was concerned about safety (I did not tell anyone this of course).
It’s now been several months since he was fired, and my ex-lover has emailed me to say that he wants to reconnect. He says he understands that I did what I had to do and that he’s actually happier now in his new job. I’m still in love with this man and probably always will be. I’m wondering if I should tell him what I did and why, or is it better to leave well enough alone and not respond to his email, since the end of our affair brought out the worst in me. I still wish for that happily ever after.
A: Oh, dear. I think I can tell you with relative certainty that there is absolutely no happily ever after available for the two of you. “After an on-and-off affair, during which she got me fired for using drugs” is never going to make it into a really solid, everlasting love story. This is a mess, and while you seem fairly aware of that at present, if there is any part of your brain that thinks maybe this time it will be different between the two of you, then that’s a part of your brain you need to carefully ignore.
Let’s go with your theory that you’ll probably always be in love with this man. OK! That’s definitely a bummer. I hope that’s not the case; I hope that with some real time and distance (not just waiting for him to call again once he’s bored with his wife), you’ll be able to see him for what he is and not some romantic ideal. But even if your feelings about him never change, I can at the very least promise that you do not have to sacrifice another decade of your life to such an emotional rollercoaster that “reporting my ex to his company for using drugs” and “maybe getting back together” sound like two good ideas that go great together. You absolutely should not respond to this email, because there is no conversation you could have that would make things OK between the two of you. There’s no explanation, there’s no shared confession, there’s no long-overdue articulation of feeling that would make your relationship equitable, loving, or healthy.
Do not answer that email, and get yourself to therapy, and spend some time figuring out how to make the next dozen years of your romantic life look different from the last. You do not have to keep your life latched onto his.
Q. Lying: My younger sister conned over $1,000 out of my brother and me. She lied to us about needing expensive repairs on her car, which is vital to getting to her job and school. She needed the money for medical care for her dog.
Neither of us make a lot of money and that grand represents vacations, savings, and our own wants. Our parents raised us to understand that you take care of family first. Our sister took advantage of that and presented herself as the victim when we called her on the theft. We are “horrible people who wanted her puppy to die.”
My brother isn’t talking to her and might not come home for Christmas if she is there. I have two cats I love but I wouldn’t do this. I don’t see any difference in my sister lying to me and taking the money to go to Vegas or spending it on shopping.
My parents want us to push everything under the rug and play the big happy family. My sister is the baby and the favorite—usually that is something I can brush off but not this time. She thinks she has nothing to apologize for. Her dog is worth more to her than us. I really don’t know what to do.
A: Your sister lied to you in order to get money out of you, and while taking care of a dog isn’t the same thing as a shopping trip, you have every right to be upset that she misled you, knowing that you would not have given her the same amount had you known what she was using it for. And if you’re angry with your sister and you don’t want to spend the holidays brushing things off, then make alternate plans. That’s OK! I think families often use the specter of The Holidays to force family members into cheerfulness and repression, as if a person could “ruin” the very concept of Thanksgiving simply be being angry. If you don’t spend the holidays with your family this year, that’s absolutely fine. You are allowed to get mad at family members, and you’re allowed to do it whether your parents like it or not. This is between you and your sister.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it will be productive to argue with your sister about whether she values the dog more than you—the issue isn’t whether she should love her dog, the issue is that you feel hurt and taken advantage of because she lied to you about why she needed money.
Q. Trauma: When I was a child I was brutally attacked by a dog. It left permanent scars on my body and on my psyche. I have been in therapy but that is not a cure-all. I no longer have sobbing fits if I see a dog, but I am still phobic about them. I cross the street if I see one and don’t go to people’s houses if they have one. I find it easier to lie and say I have allergies because if I tell people the truth, they quiz me or try to prove their dogs are the exception. In college my roommate, knowing my past, dropped a puppy in my lap and I had a panic attack.
I am married to a great man and pregnant with a little boy. He grew up with dogs, and his mother and sister do not accept our refusal to get one despite knowing my past. I have overheard my mother-in-law calling me “vindictive” and “selfish” for denying my husband a dog. My sister has told me that I need to “process my trauma.” I haven’t told my husband about these comments yet. I don’t know if I should because he will read the riot act to them and refuse to go over for the holidays. He wants to protect me but I know they will put it on me.
I am stressed at work, stressed over the baby, and sick of this dog issue. How do I handle these people? What can I say to them to get them to understand?
A: What a monstrous failure to produce empathy on your in-laws’ parts! I’m so sorry that you’ve so often met this response when you’ve tried to explain that you just can’t be around dogs, and that other people have delighted in pushing past your boundaries and making you feel guilty for having residual trauma from a highly significant violent attack in your childhood. The idea that you can simply “process” your trauma away—that it’s merely a matter of feeding input into a machine until it’s gone—is a ridiculous one, and it suggests that your sister-in-law is willfully misunderstanding what it means to experience trauma. You’re able to manage your trauma such that you can live in the world and see dogs from a distance, and that’s no small feat. I’m glad to hear that you know your husband will immediately take your side, and while I know you fear being blamed if you tell him, I think it’s time. Let him help you draw this boundary, and make it clear to his mother and sister that they are not, in fact, “helping” him by trying to make you feel guilty.
Trying to get your in-laws to “understand” shouldn’t be your goal, I think, because they already know that you suffered a terrible attack as a child and their response has been to call you selfish. They understand plenty. They just don’t care. The real work should be in communicating your limits to them as a couple—namely, that if they try to revisit the issue again, your conversation with them will be over, and you’ll walk away.
Q. Re: Brother’s new GF wants to cure cancer with vegetables: The brother (and the letter writer) may also want to look into supportive services and resources for cancer caregivers at major cancer centers. The American Cancer Society has excellent guides for people who are caring and living with those who have cancer and the brother may want to seek specific counselling services to better cope with and understand the choices his girlfriend is making, no matter how much he and the letter writer may disagree with them.
A: Thank you so much for this. There are a lot of resources available to cancer patients and their loved ones, and I think it might help both you and your brother if you access them. His girlfriend certainly isn’t the first person to attempt to manage her diagnosis with positive visualization and vegetables, and they might have helpful recommendations about how to both support her and encourage her to seek medical treatment—and if she continues to refuse to do so, to get help yourselves in coping with the ramifications of her decision.
Q. Be honest: I am in my mid-40s and was briefly married in my 20s. It was a nightmare that I vowed never to repeat. I am physically fit, have a good job, and own my own place, but I have no interest in chasing women outside my age. I want companionship and someone to enjoy the finer things in life with, but the women I meet don’t take me at my word. My last two relationships, representing a year each, were with women who agreed with me at the onset and changed their minds later. One expected me to teach her teenage son “to be a man” while undermining me every time I voiced an opinion, and the other was a 39-year-old lawyer who told me she didn’t want kids but changed her mind six months in. I had a vasectomy in my 30s and not bringing this fact up was “deliberately undermining her trust.” Is there a code phrase or a secret signal I can send to say I actually mean what I say, and am not playing games, and would like the same courtesy, please?
A: No, I’m afraid not. On the plus side, the fact that you’ve had two relationships that didn’t work out over the last few years isn’t necessarily a guarantee that every woman you date in the future is going to pretend to agree with you from the jump, then turn around and make outrageous demands once she’s safely ensconced in your life. If you were honest with these women from the beginning and then ended the relationship once it became clear they expected something from you that you had never promised nor were interested in giving them, then you’ve done everything right. I wish that always resulted in the best possible outcome, but “behaving honestly” doesn’t necessarily translate into getting into a great relationship right away.
Q. Cat custody: I feel like a deadbeat cat mom. I had a cat that I left with my brother when I moved to another state a few years ago. I couldn’t have a cat at my new place, and my brother was going through some things and I thought a cat would help him feel better. Long story short, my brother ended up going to jail, and his roommates have been taking care of the cat for the past year. Now I’m in a place where I can have a cat, and I miss my little buddy, but I feel like a jerk asking for my cat back from these roommates who’ve fed and cared for and bonded with him, and he’s currently going through health problems that they’re taking care of (although I’m paying for it).
How can I ask for my cat back while acknowledging all the time, effort, and money these guys put into him? Can I ask for my cat back without being rude?
A: Yes, you can ask for your cat back without being rude. It is in fact entirely possible that while your brother’s roommates have been willing to help while your brother’s been in jail, they’re not necessarily hoping to keep the cat forever.
You can acknowledge what a relief it’s been knowing that your cat’s been well-looked-after, that you appreciate everything these guys have done for him, and that you’re now able to have a cat in your apartment. You don’t have to demand they hand him over instantly, and you can absolutely acknowledge all the love and care they’ve given him—but it’s not rude to ask. It sounds like you have a pretty solid relationship with these guys, so if you talk to them honestly, I think things are likely to go well.
Q. Age difference: I’m 62 and I’ve become close to a man the same age as my son, 38. It appears that we’re both attracted to each other but the age difference makes me want to run away, even though everything else seems perfect. What should I do?
A: That depends! (Sorry. I know that’s not the answer you were looking for.)
You are both of age, and neither one of you is at a particularly vulnerable or early stage in self-sufficient adulthood; you are allowed to date people much younger than you or much older. It can often be an additional complication, and you may face censure and judgment from strangers and friends alike. It may be a lot of fun. It may be a serious connection. It may bring up a great deal of anxiety for you, and be more stomachache-inducing than anything else.
Why don’t you take it one step at a time? What does the prospect of going on a single date feel like when you think about it? Just a casual dinner or a couple of drinks together, trying to figure out how you feel about one another. I’m sure the urge to run away will come up, but that sounds fairly reflexive; give it a minute and when it passes, watch for any other feelings or impulses that may come up. How do you feel at the prospect? Excited? Vulnerable? Panicked? Whatever you do next, remember that you don’t have to do anything, and if the idea of moving from an attraction to any sort of relationship just doesn’t seem worth the trade-offs, then you can just have a fun, flirtatious friendship with a 38-year-old. (Congratulations on that, by the way.)
Q. Re: Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons: I’m a huge cynic, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that the married guy wants one last hook-up to exact some sort of revenge—to get some sort of dirt he can use against her, or maybe even to snap a picture and post it. I don’t believe he is happier now that he got fired for drug use. Stay away, far, far away.
A: You don’t have to be much of a cynic to look at what these two have been through together for the last dozen years and conclude that whatever comes next will just be even more of a mess! All signs point to “Stay far away from him”—not a single response has come through suggesting it’s a good idea to reopen contact.