Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (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.
Q. Schoolgirl crush—but I’m 37 and married: I’ve made a terrible mistake. I flirted heavily with a co-worker at our holiday party, much more so than a married woman should flirt. Lots of touching, and there was a moment where we almost kissed but held back. Afterward we exchanged very suggestive texts for a day or two. If I’m totally honest I really enjoyed the tension and thrill of it, and I definitely did more than my part to start and keep the situation going.
Now I feel extremely guilty and ashamed, but do not plan to burden my husband by telling him what happened—it would devastate him and destroy the trust in our relationship. My dilemma is that I genuinely like this co-worker and now realize I am also really attracted to him. I don’t want to have these feelings. I am married and too old to have a crush. I’ll be more cautious about spending time with him alone now that these unexpected feelings have surfaced, but what else should I do to protect my marriage?
A: I don’t think “trying very hard not to have feelings” and telling yourself that 37 is “too old” to be swept away by a powerful crush is going to be a useful strategy. You may not want to experience these feelings, but that’s the trouble with feelings. They don’t come based on whether or not we want them, and they don’t vanish just because they make us feel uncomfortable.
I think your plan to limit your time with this co-worker is a good one. But when those feelings resurface, don’t try to deny or negate them—that will only make them feel all the more forbidden and exciting. Just say to yourself, “Yeah, I have a crush on this man, and I want to find excuses to flirt with him and get his attention.” That doesn’t mean you have to do those things, but it may help to acknowledge your attraction in the moment, rather than try desperately to convince yourself you’re too old to feel this way—you’re demonstrably not, by dint of, you know, feeling this way.
Q. Couch lover: This fall, I gained sole custody of my 11-year-old sister, “Ada,” from our mother. Ada is on the autism spectrum, which was “too much” for our mother to handle, and she took it out on my sister when she wasn’t abandoning her at home for days outright. Ada’s transitioned well to living in my apartment with me. One thing worries me though: She refuses to sleep in her bed.
Her room was previously used as a rec room, so across from her bed was a couch that I had planned to move as soon as I could. Somehow she decided that the couch was a much better place to sleep, and has completely abandoned her bed. Even if I put her to bed in her actual bed, by the time I go to sleep she’s curled up on her couch. When I ask her why she likes sleeping on the couch instead of her bed, she shrugs and says it’s comfier. She has limited communication skills, so that’s the most concrete answer I’ve gotten from her.
I don’t want to force Ada to sleep in her bed, or stress her out to the point of a meltdown by getting rid of the couch, but I’m also worried that people might think I’m neglecting her needs if I continue to let her sleep on the couch. Do you have any suggestions?
A: I’m glad to hear that Ada has you, and that she doesn’t have to deal with your mother’s neglect and dislike anymore. A lot of kids on the spectrum have sensory issues, and may feel marked discomfort at certain sensations—like a bed that’s too soft or otherwise uncomfortable. If she’s happy on the couch, then I think you should let her continue to sleep there. You might try putting a couch (or a futon) in her bedroom at some point, but if the couch is working for her now, then that’s all that matters. Hopefully no one will ask or judge you about where your sister is most comfortable sleeping, but if it comes up, you can just say that it’s what she wants, and leave it at that.
Q. Breaking up with my psychiatrist: I have been seeing the same psychiatrist for over 10 years for depression and anxiety. In some ways, he’s been great—accessible by phone when I’m in crisis, and seeing me on a cash basis when I haven’t had insurance. But it feels like our relationship has been deteriorating for months now. He is dismissive of how routine sexism and sexual harassment corrode my quality of life. He sometimes tells me my thoughts are “just crazy,” or accuses me of being irrational, which undermines my confidence in my own ability to make decisions without his help.
Most recently, I felt like he was gaslighting me in a session: first telling me I was being irrational, then denying he has ever called me irrational; treating me like I was acting out of control when I was trying to have a calm conversation; interrupting me and talking over me. After 15 minutes of this he basically said we would have to end the session if I couldn’t “calm down.” When I said I was calm, he interrupted me again and went back to barking at me that I needed to calm down. I told him I didn’t think we could continue the session and left. It felt really good to leave!
Since then I have used the holidays as a reason not to see him again and am in the process of finding help elsewhere. What, if any, responsibility do I have to “break up” with this psychiatrist? Do I owe him an explanation?
A: You don’t owe him an explanation. You don’t have to convince him that you have sufficient justification to look elsewhere for help with your mental health, especially since he has a history of ignoring you and speaking over you. If it feels important to you to say why you’re leaving, you can absolutely say, “I’m going to find a new psychiatrist; when you call me ‘crazy’ or ‘irrational,’ or dismiss my experience with sexual harassment, I don’t feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable with you. Last month was our last session.” Remember that he does not have to agree with you in order for you to move on. I think you’re making the right decision, and I wish you a lot of luck in finding a psychiatrist who doesn’t routinely bark at you.
Q. Re: Schoolgirl crush—but I’m 37 and married: I had been married for almost 15 years when I got an intense crush on someone I worked with. Unlike you, I told my husband. It was like popping a balloon. The words came out of my mouth, and the crush just evaporated.
I don’t necessarily recommend this for you, as your situation is different and involves heavy flirting and sexy texts. We never went there; though the attraction was pretty obviously mutual, we stayed friendly but professional. It depends on what kind of relationship you have with your husband. For me, telling him got rid of the whole feedback loop Mallory mentioned. It was no longer a shameful secret, but just some weird thing happening. I still have a great, friendly, professional relationship with the guy (and also kind of wonder what I saw in him).
A: I’m so glad to hear that was helpful! I agree it may not be right for the letter writer to share this with her husband—they may not have the kind of relationship you share with your husband, and there’s a difference between “I’m attracted to someone at work” and “I’m attracted to someone at work I almost kissed and sort-of sexted”—but even just saying it out loud, to herself if to no one else, may take some of the heavy, forbidden, secretive power out of their interactions. I’m so glad to hear from someone who felt a powerful attraction to someone who wasn’t their partner, acknowledged their feelings, and moved on. It’s a helpful reminder that feelings, while powerful, aren’t the only things in the world that can drive our behavior.
Q. Other kids: My marriage collapsed after my son was born. He was a miracle, but a costly one. Fertility treatments bankrupted our savings, my wife suffered from several miscarriages, and our son was born premature. When my son was 2, my wife told me she wanted another child. I refused. We fought. A lot. At the time I thought her to be selfish and shortsighted—we were tapped out financially and emotionally. I wanted to finally enjoy ourselves as a family. She filed for divorce.
My son is 9 now, and I have remarried a widow with a girl who I have adopted. My ex has never remarried. We have a good working relationship and she is an excellent mother to our son. My bitterness has faded. My new wife is pregnant. This is unexpected and everything seems to be going well. We have not told anyone. How do I tell my ex-wife? It feels like cheating to let the news come from social media or our son, but telling the news to her face feels like rubbing it in. I want to keep our good rapport, but I am afraid of bringing up bad blood.
A: It’s been seven years since your divorce, and the relationship you have with your ex-wife now sounds markedly different from the one you had back when you were fighting every day. I think there’s an excellent chance she’ll respond to the news gracefully, or at least politely. But even if she gets upset, she has to hear it from you—don’t let her find out from Facebook or her 9-year-old son. That almost guarantees a bitter reaction.
Be frank and friendly when you tell her—there’s no reason to go into detail about whether or not the baby was planned—and if it seems like she’s having a difficult time absorbing the news, find a way to keep the conversation relatively brief and let her go deal with whatever feelings may come up for her on her own. You shouldn’t apologize for having a child with your new wife seven years after your divorce—just because you didn’t want a child at that particular time, in that particular context, doesn’t mean that you are banned from ever changing your mind.
Q. Dominating sister: What is the best way to deal with an older sister (56) who treats me, her little brother (46), like a 3-year-old? She has never stopped talking about me in the third person when I’m standing next to her. When I’m working with subtitles for my job on my laptop, I’m playing a game. She claims I own many guns (I’ve never touched one), never knocks before entering my room or the bathroom, and if a fire starts anywhere in California, she asks if I started it, because I played with matches—once—40 years ago.
I have to spend a week with her for the holidays and I’m ready to block her number. We went to the same prep schools and were raised in the same house, yet I’m supposedly a sociopath who’s never been arrested or even been in a fight. How to handle this?
A: I think that blocking her number is certainly an option. It sounds like your sister is likely unwell if she’s experiencing delusions and/or compulsively lying, and while I don’t think she’s likely to respond well to the suggestion, I hope very much that someone in her life is able to tell her that she needs to seek professional treatment. That person probably shouldn’t be you, given that you seem to be a frequent target of her delusions. If you need to limit or even eliminate contact with her for your own well-being, then I think you should do so. If it helps to spend a few sessions with a therapist talking about how being targeted by your sister’s lies has affected you and what you need to do in order to protect yourself, I encourage you to find one. But you can—and absolutely should!—say, “I can’t spend time with you if you’re going to invade my privacy, lie about me, or suggest that I’m a danger to other people when I’m not.”
Q. Re: Couch lover: I really liked small spaces when I was a teen—it made me feel comforted to be surrounded on all sides. Let the kid have her couch. Tell anyone who doesn’t like it to take a flying leap.
A: I imagine some of the letter writer’s anxiety about being perceived as neglectful comes from the fact that their mother was, in fact, neglectful. But I don’t think other people would necessarily see the couch-bed setup and think, “Oh no, this kid is being neglected”—I think it’s not as unusual as the letter writer fears it might be.
Q. The constant whistler: My roommate and colleague of three months, “Lisa,” has a habit of humming and whistling quite constantly. Because we share the same living space, office space, and work schedule, this means I hear it quite a bit, and what I initially thought was a quirky habit is now extremely irritating to me. If we make the 15-minute walk to work together, she’ll begin to whistle three to four times during lulls in our conversation, for about 10–20 seconds each time. I’ve begun to head in to the office early to avoid walking with her, and make excuses to head back on my own when work is over. She hums or whistles relatively often in the office, and even more frequently in our small apartment, in buses, taxis, et cetera. She’s a nice girl, and by default my closest friend here (we are expats in a foreign country, in a city with few English speakers), but I find her lack of self-awareness so frustrating!
I know I need to do it, but I just can’t think of a polite yet firm way to ask her not to hum or whistle so frequently around me without upsetting her; it seems to be a habit that’s pretty ingrained in her. I would love to take bigger steps like moving apartments, but unfortunately that’s not an option for me at the moment.
A: “I don’t know if you’re conscious of this, but you whistle and hum a lot of the time when we’re at home together, and that makes it hard for me to concentrate if I’m working or relax if I’m trying to unwind. Do you mind keeping it to a minimum when we’re at home? I’m glad you enjoy it, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to be totally silent, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t whistle so often.” If she responds positively but occasionally forgets—after all, it sounds like a pretty unconscious habit, and it may take a while for her to become aware of how frequently she does it—just mention it casually. “Hey, you’re doing it again; do you mind stopping?” It’s a very gentle, very reasonable request, and if she’s otherwise a good roommate, I’m sure she’ll be happy to cut back.
Q. When do I tell girlfriend about sexual assault?: When I was in high school, I (a male) was repeatedly sexually assaulted and harassed by a female classmate for years. Some of my friends knew about it, but thought it was funny or that I was “lucky”. After high school, I never told a single person about it. The assault caused me to experience depression and a crisis of faith. It also made me afraid to become close to females, and to have physical interactions with them, thus damaging and dooming pretty much every romantic relationship I’ve had since.
Due to the #MeToo movement, I’ve started telling a few people about my assault. I recently started dating a great girl. It is still early in the relationship, and we haven’t kissed or anything due to my trauma, which she doesn’t know about. I’m starting to think she thinks there is something wrong or that I don’t like her. When and how should I tell her? I’m afraid that going too dark and serious too soon may damage the relationship. I really like her.
A: I’m so sorry that you were sexually assaulted, and I’m even sorrier that the people you trusted as your friends responded by dismissing and mocking the repeated violations you experienced. I hope that the friends you’ve started sharing your experience with recently have responded with compassion, belief, and support. If you’re anxious about talking to this girl about being assaulted and harassed, it may help to speak to your friends first about what you’re afraid of, and to enlist their support before and after you speak to her.
First, of course, it’s worth pointing out that you’re not obligated to disclose anything if you don’t want to. You can absolutely say, “I’d prefer to take our physical relationship slow, but I really like you and I want to keep seeing each other.” Or you can offer her a quick sketch of where you’re coming from without going into detail: “When I was younger, I was assaulted and harassed by a female classmate, and I’m still dealing with the aftermath. I don’t want to talk about it in detail right now, but I do want you to know where I’m coming from and what I’m dealing with.” Your reluctance is understandable, given how in the past you were met with dismissal and laughter when you tried to tell people you suffered sexual violence at the hands of a teenage girl. But if this woman you’re seeing now is a good person—and it sounds like she is—I think she’ll be understanding and respectful. Whenever you feel ready is the best time to tell her. I hope she responds with compassion.
Q. Re: Couch lover: My son is on the spectrum and has some very specific needs for sleep. The letter writer may not be aware of what routine Ada followed in her mother’s home, and that routine could help explain why she wants to sleep on the couch. It may be the place where she feels most comfortable. Also, it may provide the best source of sensory deprivation.
Sleeping on a couch is so far away from neglect, especially when the letter writer is providing his or her sister with a stable, loving home. There are a lot of organizations that can provide the letter writer with support as he or she starts navigating parenting a child with autism. Take care.
A: Thanks so much for this. The most important thing to remember, I think, is that the letter writer is doing what’s best for his or her sister. It’s much better to give Ada a place to sleep where she feels comfortable and relaxed than to try to get her to sleep in a bed because of what other people might think—the letter writer is doing the absolute best thing for Ada.
Ortberg: Thanks for stopping by during a quiet week! See you next time.