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 email@example.com
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. Breaking a 5-year-old’s heart: My 5-year-old daughter is the joy of my life. She is smart, funny, kind, and adorable—but she is a terrible singer! I mean, dogs will howl when she sings. But for some reason, she thinks she is a great singer and insists on doing it often and at the top of her lungs, which annoys me to no end.
Obviously, this is a 5-year-old quirk and I have just learned to accept it. But I am worried about when she is older and wants to try out for singing things because no one had the courage to break her heart early and say, “No, darling, your singing sounds like two cats fighting in a cloth sack; you can’t do it.” My husband thinks we should just encourage her. But I can’t stand the idea of my daughter getting hurt over something that could have been stopped early. Advice?
A: I don’t think the answer here is that you should be the one to hurt your daughter first just because you’re convinced the world will. You say your daughter is convinced that she is a great singer, and frankly, she sounds like she is. She enjoys it, it makes her happy, and she gets to feel comfortable belting out a tune at the top of her lungs. It’s perfectly fine for you to remind her that full volume isn’t always appropriate (even if she had the voice of an angel, you have the right to set some “peace and quiet” times in your own home) and that there is a time and place to burst into song.
But having a great voice is not the most important prerequisite for singing. Don’t make her embarrassed or self-conscious about something that brings her so much joy. Focus on teaching her that there’s a time and a place for singing, and that she should feel free to take as much joy in singing as she possibly can. Your daughter is not on the verge of auditioning for a show choir. And if that day ever comes, and she experiences disappointment, that’s OK. Kids have to experience disappointment. Don’t pre-emptively seek it out because you can’t handle the idea of her not getting something she may or may not want at some point in the future.
Q. Happily considering an open relationship: I just listened to your podcast and am responding to the call for people who are happily and curiously considering opening their relationship, rather than trying to fix a problem with it.
My significant other and I have been together for a couple of years. When we met, I knew that he was in the poly scene, but he said that was not a necessity for him. I was curious about opening up the relationship but wanted us to build our relationship first. At this point, I feel like we have a strong foundation and am curious about opening things up. I have not had great experiences with nonexclusive relationships before and know that I have a strong jealous streak. However, I am also turned on by the idea of my partner being with someone else, although I wouldn’t want us to have full-blown relationships with other people. The only things really stopping me from moving forward with this curiosity are not knowing where to start and feeling like I don’t want to mess with a good thing. Your guidance would be appreciated.
A: Oh, huzzah! I’m happy to field all kinds of questions, of course, so I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s contemplating an open relationship unhappily from writing in, but I think the best reason to try an open relationship is “I’d sure like to be in one,” not “my relationship is falling apart and I’m hoping this keeps us from the inevitable end.”
Some general advice would be: talk a lot—and then talk some more—about your expectations, your fears, your concerns, your hard noes. Sometimes people hear “open relationship” and think “total sexual free-for-all with absolutely no criticism or feedback from my partner,” and that’s probably not going to result in optimal outcomes. You don’t have to be open at all times and to all comers, and the fact that you’re excited about being open doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone you and your partner are interested in is going to be excited, too. Remember that anyone you consider seeing—whether together or separately—is a person too, with their own feelings and preferences, and that you shouldn’t treat them as a walk-on or without consideration.
Readers in open relationships, what have you found helpful for getting started?
Q. Mom who?: My stepmom has always had an odd habit of trying to co-opt my parents’ shared history to minimize my mother’s role. For example, someone will tell a story that happened in the ’80s, when my brother and I were toddlers, and my stepmom will remark on how she remembers or was present at that event, even though this was years before my parents broke up.
This year, it feels like my stepmom has taken it further. Knowing my mom has a three-hour drive home and doesn’t like to drive at night, my stepmom maneuvered to move the family meal to 5 p.m.—too late for my mom to join. When the rest of the family decided to do an early light lunch followed by the later meal, my stepmom barred my father from attending and insisted that my mom be out of the house before she arrives.
This morning, I happened across my stepmom making a cake. When I asked what kind, I was surprised to hear it was the traditional recipe that my mom has made every year for us since we were young. Family lore is that when we were toddlers and my parents were struggling financially, my mom used to bake this cake and sell it to local bakeries that would then resell as their own; it’s that good and, as a result, that special. It’s an act of love she does for us kids on holidays and birthdays.
While I know rationally that it’s just a cake, the fact my stepmom has co-opted this recipe has me feeling enraged. I respect that my father remarried, but the subtle attempts to minimize my mother from our lives on a holiday feels unnecessary and malicious. Obviously, the cake is a symbol for a larger issue, but I’m still stewing. Any advice on not making this into a bigger issue than need be? Am I being completely petty, or is this behavior that I should address?
A: When your stepmother claims to have been present at an event you both know full well she didn’t attend, you can (and should) absolutely say, “No, we [went to the beach that day] with my mom.” You can be polite and neutral in your correction, but there’s no reason not to challenge her attempts to rewrite history. When it comes to something like the cake, while you can’t tell her not to, you can certainly acknowledge your positive memories with your own mother: “It’s a great cake! My mom used to make it for us all the time when we were little.”
That doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to manage how your stepmother and father interact with your mother, but you can certainly encourage your father—if your parents have a generally civil relationship—to make sure that there’s room for your mother during family gatherings and holiday meals.
Q. Auntie in the middle: After my brother’s divorce, he doesn’t speak to his daughters (ages 16, 19, and 23). I have maintained a great relationship with my nieces. I feel that that their relationship with their father has nothing to do with me. I am supportive of all mature behavior, by anyone.
The growing problem is that my parents—their grandparents—are now acting childish. They only know about the girls from their conversations with my brother, who doesn’t speak to them. I have encouraged contact between the grandparents and the girls, but I have been clear that it is not my job to manage or mediate their relationship. My parents have said things like, “they have our numbers” and “they only call when they need money.” The truth is that they have tried to call frequently, but the grandparents don’t turn on their phones or empty their full voicemail boxes. Is there anything more that I can do from my viewpoint?
A: I’m glad at least that your nieces have one relative on their father’s side who cares about them. How painful, especially for the younger kids, to think that their father’s love ended with his marriage. I think you’re right to not try to overmanage your parents’ relationship with their grandkids, but it’s worth pointing out at least once, “How do you expect them to call when you don’t turn on your phone or check your voicemail? What are you doing to meet them halfway when they reach out? They love you, and I’d hate for you to miss out on this formative time in their lives just because of Chegory’s divorce.”
Q. Re: Breaking a 5-year-old’s heart: When I was 7, my mom made an offhand comment about the horrible noise coming from my bedroom one night, and when I said I was singing, she laughed at me. That did break my heart, and I spent years thinking I was terrible singer (instead of an untrained small child). Well, it turns out that now in my 30s, I am actually a decent singer and one of my favorite happy hours is karaoke with friends. Unfortunately, thanks to my mom, I spent more than a decade terrified to sing even though I enjoyed it so much. Kids don’t remember everything from childhood, but I guarantee she would remember this.
A: I’m getting a lot of letters along this line. It seems like a lot of people have vivid childhood memories of being told they can’t sing by their parents, and even if you don’t laugh at your child (!), they’ll get the message that only people who are already talented at singing should try singing loud and clear. Frankly, even if the letter writer’s kid is the worst singer in the world, with absolutely no hope of being able to carry a tune, she still should get to experience the joy of singing and cultivating a lifelong interest in music.
Q. Boyfriend’s abusive family: My boyfriend’s family is all very abusive to each other, and in turn, it’s all he knows. He is a very sweet and loving person, but if even mildly agitated, he’ll call me names and scream at me that I’m crazy. Today he told me that he was breaking up with me and to get the fuck off his property or he would call the police, after pushing me out and slamming my arm in the door. Turns out, it was his mom’s birthday and I wasn’t invited, and he forgot when he invited me over and said we were going out tonight. He then texted me, acting very sweetly again, saying he just wanted me to leave and didn’t know how to make me leave, that he’s sorry, all that.
It’s always like this and I don’t know what to do. Good for weeks and then I have a human reaction and everything goes to hell again. Tomorrow, we’ll be back together and happy. I know it’s not actually abusive or anything, I’m just so sad and so sick of all of this. What should I do?
A: This is abusive. Your boyfriend belittles you, screams at you, threatens to call the police on you for being in his house before you even knew he was planning on ending your relationship, pushed you through a door, and physically assaulted you. This is textbook abuse, with absolutely no caveats or gray areas. The fact that your boyfriend has himself experienced abuse, while sad, is absolutely no justification for the ways in which he is abusing you now. The fact that he’s “always like this,” that weeks of calm are punctuated by sudden outbursts of emotional and/or physical abuse, followed after by an apology, is part and parcel of the cycle of abuse.
You deserve to be safe, and you deserve support in leaving him, which is often the most dangerous point in an abusive relationship. If there’s anyone in your life you can ask for help and support in leaving your abuser, please consider talking to them and finding a safe place to stay. You can also contact the hotline and find help developing a “safety plan.” Please know, if absolutely nothing else, that what your boyfriend is doing is plain and simple abuse, and that there’s nothing in his own background that justifies or excuses what he’s done to you. I wish you all the best in finding the help you need right now.
Q. Re: Happily considering an open relationship: My wife and I opened up our relationship after three years and I tell people considering polyamory to have an excellent foundation with their significant other before taking on new partners. She knows about everything before it happens. Trust is essential! If you genuinely try and meet the needs of all of your partners, it can be a wonderful thing. Once a relationship is open, it’s common for the “new” partner to be the “fun” partner and for the long-standing significant other to be that partner who you also have to do all of the mundane things of life with. Make sure you make “fun” with the long-standing partner a priority and communicate about how the new people make you feel openly and often. More people brings the potential for hurt feelings, jealousy, and neglect due to undercommunicating.
A: Thanks for this! Yeah, I can imagine that unless a lot of your first dates or weekend flings involve “taking out the trash together” or “making sure the car insurance bill gets paid on time,” it would be easy to start taking your long-term partner for granted.
Q. FOMO or something more serious?: I have been in a relationship with the same person my entire adult life (10 years). We’re all but engaged, and he wants very much to buy a house and settle down into a blissful future. It’s a beautiful dream, but I feel discontent, and there’s a big part of me that desperately wants to run away, drop 70 pounds, and sleep with other people. I want to sleep around and date and do all the things I missed out on, but I can’t bear to lose him. Is this just a quarter-life crisis that will pass, or will it always haunt my relationship?
A: I have no idea whether this is a quarter-life crisis or a sign of things to come, I’m afraid. Neither of us can accurately predict what you’re going to feel in the future. One thing that’s worth bearing in mind is that you don’t say you find your relationship dull or unsatisfying, just that you’re experiencing a combination of anxieties: First, that you’ve missed out on the chance to date and sleep with lots of people by finding a monogamous partner so early in life, and second, that you won’t be able to achieve particular goals (change your appearance, “run away,” try something new) as a partnered person.
As for the first one, only you can determine how serious that itch is. If you feel like the need to date multiple people outweighs the good parts of your current relationship, then you’ll have a difficult choice ahead of you. As for the second, just because you’re in a committed relationship doesn’t mean you can’t also experiment, change, travel, or develop your own sense of independence. I think you should share (judiciously) some of these thoughts with your partner. Don’t open with, “I want to run away and have sex with a ton of strangers,” obviously, but talk honestly about your settling-down jitters. It may be that he shares some of them. If nothing else, it will make you feel less trapped or like you’re contributing to a happy fantasy where he has no idea of your internal reality.
Q. Deviance in my head: I have a co-worker who is very polite, fun to be around, and treats me with respect. The problem? My intuition is telling me that her kindness is fake and that I should be careful to trust her. I just have this feeling that I can’t trust her and that she will use our friendship against me. I have no evidence to back this mindset up, but it’s always in the back of my mind when I’m around her. How do I get past this?
A: Be friendly and professional to your co-worker. Whether your intuition is way off base or dead-on, the answer is the same. Don’t share any of your deepest secrets with her or confess your frustrations about the way the company is run (which, frankly, is probably good advice for dealing with most co-workers, even without the strange suspicion you have about this one). Keep things polite and focused on work, and you’ll be just fine.
Q. Rehab?: I am a middle-aged woman. The past year has been stressful: My husband retired due to disability. I gave up a part-time job to travel with him, but we ended up staying home. Our 20-year-old daughter had a mental health crisis, left college, and moved back home. We are in very good financial shape. We get along OK, although I find myself mediating arguments between the two of them.
My issue is that I am drinking more. I used to be a two-beers-at-dinner type. Now, if I have two drinks out with friends, I come home and have three or four more. Is there anything I can do on my own to address this? I don’t feel like I am a candidate for a rehab and I am not religious, so Alcoholics Anonymous is not a fit.
A: There are lots of ways to address or reorient one’s relationship to drinking! For what it’s worth, there are lots of nonreligious people in AA, so religious devotion is not a prerequisite, but it’s certainly not the only resource available to people who are struggling with their drinking but are not necessarily alcoholics. There are groups like Moderation Management that prioritize drinking in moderation over total abstinence. You can share your concerns with your husband and try a short dry period for a few weeks and see how that feels before returning to your old two-drink limit. You can talk to your doctor, or a therapist; there are a number of books available for people who are interested in cutting back.
It sounds like, at least in part, you’ve noticed a shift in your own drinking as a result of the stress of dealing with your daughter’s personal crisis and managing the increased level of conflict in your home; you may benefit from seeing a therapist, setting firmer boundaries around your husband and your daughter and spending less time mediating their arguments, and getting out of the house more often, whether that be to go on a walk, meet up with friends for a non-drinking-related outing, or to do something by yourself that you enjoy.
Q. Did I keep my friend in the closet?: One of my good friends from high school recently came out to me as gay. We were part of a tight friend group—all cis men who graduated from high school about 10 years ago. He and I have remained friends, and since he came out to me, he has mentioned having boyfriends and dating men since at least early college, meaning he was in the closet (or at least not out to me) for a while now.
What I keep thinking is, when we were all in high school as greasy, horny teenage boys, I must have at least somewhat contributed to the environment that led him to remain private about his sexuality. We were never overtly homophobic but were certainly hyper-sexual: talking about girls, ribbing my friend about his prom dates, telling dirty jokes, sharing X-rated internet humor, talking about masturbating, that kind of thing. In retrospect, this kind of environment was not a comfortable place for one of us to say, “Hey, by the way, I’m gay.”
Do I owe my friend a late apology for contributing to a social group that may have left him less comfortable in his own skin? Or am I being selfish, overthinking this, and inserting myself into my friend’s relationship with his own sexuality?
A: I think your friend is probably thinking less about you than you are, but you can certainly say, “I’m really glad to hear that you’re out, and I’m grateful you could share it with me. I’m so happy for you.” The discomfort you’re currently experiencing, namely the realization that you have (like pretty much all of us, at one time or another!) contributed to a degree of compulsory heteronormativity is totally understandable, but it’s a little outsize to feel like the fact that you talked a lot about girls or joked about masturbating in high school were serious contributing factors to your friend not coming out (at least to you) until his late 20s. It would be one thing if you had said homophobic things that you wanted to apologize for, but as it is, I think the best possible response to this discomfort, rather than asking your friend how he felt about his high school experience, is to make sure that you continue to contribute to a different sort of atmosphere as an adult.
Q. Separate lives: I love my boyfriend, “Stan,” and I see a future together. My only problem is how enmeshed his life is with his ex, “Sara.” Sara is gay and came out after she divorced Stan. They have a son together. Sara and her partner have three kids together. Stan got remarried but lost his wife to cancer. His stepdaughter is still in her final year of high school so she lives with him. Stan and his family go over to Sara’s all the time for dinner. Stan is the Little League coach for one of their kids and takes the other two camping and hiking. His son is in college, but Stan refers to Sara’s kids as his all the time! His stepdaughter calls them her “aunts” and “cousins.”
It is like a modern Brady Bunch and I feel like an ogre for being weirded out. Stan’s dead wife just adored Sara and her partner. All their stories involve shared vacations and family events and I am the odd person out. I have been wanting Stan to sell his big old house after his stepdaughter leaves so we can get a small place of our own—just our own. I secretly want to get one farther away so we don’t have to live in each other’s pockets. I haven’t told Stan this. No one has done anything specific to me that I can point out and it will cause a fight. How do I start this conversation?
A: Some of the things you want to discuss with Stan are both reasonable and achievable, particularly wanting to discuss the possibility of getting a smaller place together a few years down the road. Some of the things you’re having trouble with, particularly the fact that he’s part of a blended family, seem to be part and parcel of being in a relationship with Stan, and you’re going to have to figure out whether or not you’re able to accept them.
If his stepdaughter considers Sara’s kids her aunts and cousins, then you have no business trying to alter or manage that. Stan’s had a long life full of experiences with his family before he met you, and all the resentment in the world isn’t going to change that. If you can find a way to not only make your peace with that—his life experience is presumably what made him the man you love today—but to enjoy that about him, then you stand an excellent chance of being able to build your own, unique life together. But your life together can’t be built on an erasure of the life he has now.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks everyone! See you next week.