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. What is “knowing” supposed to feel like?: I’m in a pretty serious relationship of a little over a year with a great partner. This is my first real long-term relationship. Sometimes when I’m with friends they talk about how they “know” the person they are with is who they want to spend their life with. I try to ask how they know, and they mostly say they “just feel it.” I don’t think I feel it, but I also have no idea what I’m supposed to feel. My partner is amazing and such a good match for me in so many ways. We’ve talked about marriage, but neither of us feel a rush.
Am I doing something wrong by staying in a relationship where I don’t necessarily feel this magical “it”? Or is there no such thing, and being happy is good enough?
A: One of the weird things about being a person is you don’t really have access to the inside of anybody else’s head. If people say something like they “just knew” they wanted to be with their partners for the rest of their lives but can’t offer much in the way of explaining what “just knowing” feels like, then you only speculate. Also, people often retroactively assign total confidence after the fact—if you’ve been happily married for a number of years, when you look back at the early days of your relationship together with the added benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to forget or dismiss moments of uncertainty. If you think your partner is an amazing person and that you two are a good match, and if you consider yourselves happy together, then I think you can safely say you’re in a good relationship.
Q. Do I give back the ring?: I lost my husband two years ago after we been married less than three months. He died in a motorcycle accident. I have had sporadic contact with his family since the funeral; they never really warmed up to me. There was also some ugliness when they realized that all my husband’s financials were put in my name after the wedding.
His younger sister is getting remarried and wants the wedding bands and engagement ring—they belonged to my husband’s grandparents. I still wear the wedding band. I am not 100 percent out there in the dating pool, but I have been trying to dip my toes. Should I give the rings back? Or maybe just the engagement ring? It hurts my heart to give up the signs of my marriage, but I don’t know if I have the right to hold on to them when I barely had him and they were family heirlooms.
A: You do have the right to your own wedding and engagement rings. The fact that your husband died unexpectedly shortly after you two were married is a tragedy, not evidence that you two weren’t “really” married or that you weren’t really his wife. If you would like to keep both rings, then don’t allow your husband’s family to pressure you into giving them up just because you were widowed. If you would like to offer one but not the other as a gesture of goodwill, then I think that would be extremely kind of you, but you’re under no obligation to do so. If nothing else, know that you have every right to keep anything your husband ever gave you—“family heirlooms” include you, as you became a part of your husband’s family the day you married him.
Q. Re: What is “knowing” supposed to feel like?: Just “knowing” is silly. People change a lot over the course of a lifetime. You can’t really know; you just take a leap of faith and roll the dice. Lots of arranged marriages work out great! And lots of people who “just knew” end up in a messy divorce 10 years later. If you’re truly happy and like to do stuff together, then you’re doing great. What you’re taking for granted right now is actually not easy to find.
A: Another vote for not feeling down about your own relationship just because you don’t have a magical, hazy, indefinable sense of “just knowing” about one another.
Q. Beauty is only skin deep: My 12-year-old daughter is not a pretty child. I know that makes me sound like a terrible parent, but it’s relevant to the question. I love her, and that makes her beautiful to me, but she doesn’t hit a lot of aesthetic markers for beauty. She has lots of other good qualities—academically, she is well ahead of the curve, she’s very compassionate, and she’s really a very sweet girl.
Her schoolmates, however, prefer to focus on her physical appearance, and there’s been some bullying this year. My wife always reassures her that the girls are just jealous, that she’s going to be more beautiful than any of them—the whole ugly duckling skit. However, I was an ugly little kid—there was a lot going on—and I knew it; I had a mirror. The lies my parents told me to comfort me just made me feel worse, because how terrible must it be to ugly that they’d lie to me about it? And every day I’d look to see if I’d finally grown out of it. Never did, but learned to work with it.
I want to start a new script, where we say it’s OK not to be fairy-princess beautiful at 12, that fashion and confidence can be more appealing than perfect hair, that she’s smart as a whip, and one day she can be pretty or not if she wants, but she’ll always be awesome. My wife hears that as “let’s just tell her she’s ugly and see what happens.” She thinks that our daughter believes she’s beautiful, and we just have to continue to repeat it.
Maybe she’s right? I know it’s harder for girls and women to be nonaesthetically pleasing in society. She could need us to tell her she’s beautiful and the other girls are just intimidated. It probably doesn’t help that my daughter looks a lot like a less-weird version of me at that age, so I might be projecting my needs at the time onto hers now.
A: I can cheerfully sign off on about 80 percent of what you’re proposing saying to your daughter. Tell her that she’s an awesome kid, that there are a number of qualities more important than perfect hair, that her confidence and sense of style are appealing and will serve her well in life, and that being super-gorgeous isn’t a sign of anyone’s intrinsic value or character. I don’t think you should speculate as to whether one day she may or may not be pretty; I understand what you’re trying to say there, but I don’t think it will do her much good to hear that from you. Your daughter already hears that she’s not attractive and that that’s not OK from her peers. What she needs from you is an alternative worldview—that while we live in a frequently image-obsessed society, it’s not the end-all and be-all of happiness and worth—as well as affirmation that she’s not an outcast or terrible to look at.
Q. Re: What is “knowing” supposed to feel like?: I “just knew” with my ex-husband. In retrospect, I should have “just thought about it a bit longer.”
A: It is interesting how often people will point to a vague, hazy feeling of “just knowing” when they talk about wanting to marry someone, but have no trouble getting specific and facts-based when they talk about wanting to get divorced.
Q. He told me I could look at his phone anytime: Then I did. There was a text from his sister that said, “Heidi x you = bad idea. She is a terrible person and you’ll get your heart broken.”
His sister barely knows me. She and I have met literally a total of about 12 hours. He and I have been together for five years, and yes, we have had some trouble, but we’ve had a lot of great times too. Both of us are in therapy. The texts, the phone—what is appropriate? I never want to see his phone again, but like a trainwreck, I’m finding myself drawn to it, wondering if there’s more toxicity about me on there. Will he defend me? He didn't that time. Is that his job? I want it to be.
A: I have so many follow-up questions, but I’ll do my best to answer your question with the limited information I’ve been given. The fact that you’ve spent a cumulative 12 hours with your boyfriend’s sister over the past five years, as well as the fact that you vaguely allude to “some trouble” between the two of you, suggests to me that there’s at least possible grounds for concern about your relationship. That doesn’t mean you have to agree that you’re a “terrible person,” but it’s worth investigating, as neutrally as possible, what’s happened between the two of you over the last five years that might give an outside observer pause.
Talk to your boyfriend about what you saw. What was the context for his sister’s warnings? What reason did he have for not defending you or your relationship? Do you think he agrees, in full or in part, that you are a “terrible person,” and if so, why are you two still together? Leave aside the fact that you two have had “a lot of great times.” That’s besides the point—the point is, do the two of you respect one another, can you communicate directly, and do you trust him? If the answer is no, then all the good times in the world won’t save your relationship.
Q. I don’t care!: A newish friend of mine used to work in an industry with a really strong macho culture, and now he often finds ways to shoehorn anecdotes from that time in his life into conversations about anything else. It’s his way of bragging. Is there a nice way of telling him I’m not impressed nor terribly interested in his hijinks one-upping the bros? And that he’s much more pleasant and interesting when he talks about his other interests and the rest of his life? We have a pretty snarky repartee, so I think if I were to be straightforward, he’d interpret it as sarcasm and maybe encouragement.
A: “You may not have noticed this, but when you bring up stories about your time working at [Boat Shoes and Toxic Masculinity, Incorporated], it feels like you’re bragging about a macho work culture that feels alienating and off-putting, and that doesn’t really represent the person I know you as now.” It would be hard, I think, to interpret that sort of observation as “sarcastic encouragement,” but if he meets you with a joke, I think you can make it plain that you’re not looking to wind him up but to talk honestly and openly about a certain form of exclusionary, performatively macho masculinity and how it affects people who don’t fit into its confines at work.
Q. Bathroom: My work station is right near the bathroom. The regular sounds of flushing and hand-washing don’t bother me, but I have two workers who are very loud. One is an old lady who just moans and groans like she is passing a kidney stone or giving birth. She is so loud that I have had clients on the phone comment about it. The second takes her cellphone into the bathroom and has private conversations all the time. She is extremely loud, and I can hear every detail—like her daughter cheated on her boyfriend and thinks she might be pregnant. It is embarrassing. I have told her she might want to go outside if she wants to call someone, as sound carries pretty well out here. She told me to mind my own business and no one likes an eavesdropper. I sit 3 feet away and can hear it through a closed door, and she screeches like a banshee.
It wouldn’t be so bad, but they do this every day rather than using the regular bathrooms downstairs. I feel I should record the noise from my desk and go to their supervisor, but I don’t know him well, and mine is useless. We don’t have an HR onsite here. Can you give me some advice?
A: Sometimes it can seem gentler to offer an indirect suggestion to someone at work rather than a direct request, but I think you’re experiencing firsthand the downsides to soft-pedaling. “I’m not trying to overhear any of your conversations, but I sit 3 feet away from the bathroom and can’t help but hear every word you say when you talk on the phone in the bathroom. It makes it difficult to speak to clients. Please take your personal calls where they won’t disrupt other people’s work.” If she dismisses you again, there’s no need to try to record her conversations—that’s not an appropriate response and, depending upon what state you’re in, may land you in trouble. Just take your concerns to your own supervisor (“useless” or not, he or she is part of the chain of command) before speaking to hers.
As for the older co-worker, I think you should take seriously the possibility that she does have kidney stones or is dealing with some sort of medical condition; there’s a world of difference between vocalizing involuntarily while in pain versus taking a phone call about your daughter’s love life in the bathroom at work.
Q. Girlfriend’s son age shock: I’m 24 and have been dating a girl, “Emily,” for about four months now, and I’ve never been more in love with a woman. I know it’s early, but I really think she is “the one.” Emily is 26 and was always upfront that she is a single mom with a young son. I haven’t met him yet, which seemed OK; I understood her taking time for us to meet. She talked about him a little bit, but I guess I wasn’t really paying that much attention when she did.
Emily lives with her mom, and I’ve been invited over for Christmas dinner. I wanted to get gifts for both her mom and son, and that’s when it came out that her son is 11 years old! I assumed that he was much younger than that, since Emily has a successful career and never mentioned that she’d been pregnant in high school. I’m not judgmental about that, but I never pictured being a dad to a kid this old. His biological dad is not part of his life, so I’d be his only father figure even though I’m only 13 years older than him. I don’t want to lose Emily, but I’m not sure about this. How can I become more comfortable with this idea? Is it possible that I will feel more enthusiastic after I meet him?
A: Emily is not asking you to become a father figure to her son after four months of dating. She is asking you to meet her son. It’s perfectly fine for you to feel anxious at the prospect of meeting him, especially when you pictured someone much younger but don’t feel like your next move has to be either “get ready to be a father to an 11-year-old” or “end your previously wonderful relationship.” The only task ahead of you is to spend a holiday meal together and to be friendly and welcoming. (Also, if you have a habit of “not paying that much attention” when your girlfriend talks about the age of her child, amend that habit as quickly as possible and work on your active listening skills.)
If you’re nervous or concerned, that’s completely understandable. If you have some questions for Emily, ask them, bearing in mind that she may not want to go into every single detail of her life as a single mother. You can share your fears with her. Don’t dump every thought that comes into your head upon her, but tell her that you’ve never done this before, that you’re not sure what to do, and that you want to be able to talk about what you want Christmas to look like as a couple. Be patient with yourself, keep an open mind, don’t make assumptions about what is and isn’t being asked of you, and talk honestly with your partner, and I think odds are good that you’ll have a lovely time together.
Q. My friend, the robot: I have been friends with “Clarissa” for 11 years. We currently live together with another roommate. For as long as I remember, Clarissa has been as empathetic as a rock—as in, not at all. She’s very pragmatic and logical, and while she tries very hard to be comforting, she sucks at it.
Our other roommate recently went through a breakup. After a few days, Clarissa attempted to comfort our roomie by saying, “He was a jerk anyway. I’m glad he won’t be around to use our bathroom anymore, ha ha!” Our roommate was upset by this, and it was cringe-inducing to watch.
Clarissa grew up as a child of (a nasty) divorce. She usually keeps her emotions to herself. I’m a very emotional person, and there are many things she does that concern me (for example, she won’t react to her feelings or if she does, later denies she ever acted emotionally). She’s a really warm person, but sometimes when trying to comfort or relate to people, she just seems cold. Is there anything I can say to her to help her?
A: If your roommate was hurt by what Clarissa said, then your roommate should say something to Clarissa about it. If you sometimes feel hurt by something Clarissa says or does, then you should say something to her about it, bearing in mind that your goal should not be “make sure Clarissa experiences emotions in the same way that I do,” but to honestly communicate what you’re feeling and what you need from her.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! May all of your camping trips this week be with willing companions.