Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
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Q. Custody: I am a single mom, with one daughter, dating a man with two sons. We were on the road to getting married, but that has reached a screeching halt.
My boyfriend’s 14-year-old son is a Nazi. He is addicted to alt-right sites and uses white nationalist rhetoric. Worse, he has acted aggressively toward my daughter and me (my mother was Persian and my ex is South Asian). He was encouraged by his mother until he was suspended from school for stalking and threatening a girl.
Now my boyfriend is trying to get full physical custody of his son to “save” him. I don’t think it is possible, at least short of sending him to a boarding school. (His older son is at college and is a sweetheart.) My boyfriend works long hours, and a few hours of family therapy is not going to cut it with this kid.
My boyfriend tells me I am the love of his life and to trust him, but I am afraid. I don’t want to lose him, but I am not putting my daughter anywhere around this. Can you see any way through this?
A: Your daughter’s safety, and yours, have to come first, especially since this boy has already been suspended for threatening another girl and has acted aggressively toward your daughter. If your boyfriend’s plan of getting full custody does not seem to take your safety into account, then you should not trust it, and you should not move forward in this relationship. If that means you lose the boyfriend, then that’s the best possible outcome in this situation, painful as it may seem to you right now.
Q. Socializing with dementia: My cognitive functioning (memory, language, comprehension) has been declining faster than average for my age (68). Recently, after a thorough work-up by a neurologist specializing in dementia, I was told that I have progressive dementia (probably not Alzheimer’s).
My problem is that I’ve become what I call “socially vulnerable.” At least, that’s how I feel. It’s hard to remember important things about people—not just their names, but the fact that their spouse is dead, for example. I begin to talk about something I’ve read or heard, then my mind goes blank. I say odd things because I don’t put two and two together, or fail to comprehend in the first place.
My close friends know about my condition. I feel that they are distancing in a subtle way. Acquaintances look at me quizzically and exit the conversation. I know about suggestions made by various Alzheimer’s associations regarding memory aides. I’m still living independently and am able to take care of my finances. But I feel awkward and at risk whenever I open my mouth. I find myself avoiding social situations, which isn’t good for the depression I’ve had off and on most of my adult life. Do you have any suggestions on how to help myself with this?
A: I want to turn this one over to readers—does anyone who has experienced social isolation as a result of cognitive impairment have any tips or suggestions they’d like to share with this letter writer?
Q. Making a smooth exit: I’ve spent six months at a job I detest. I also feel ready to move on and pursue a freelance career in my chosen field. Before I leave, I want to find part-time work elsewhere to stay busy and contribute steady income until freelancing becomes profitable. I am young, educated, and have my husband’s emotional and financial support, so this next step is exciting.
My worry is blindsiding my boss and co-workers when I eventually give my notice. I am meant to fill in during a co-worker’s upcoming maternity leave, but I hope to be gone by then, and it will cause a frenzy to hire and train my replacement on top of everything else (the job is quite complicated). I can’t just announce my vague plans to leave, but I want to exit gracefully. Is there a professional way to prepare my colleagues for my inevitable departure without explicitly saying that I am leaving as soon as I can find another job? What do I owe the company in this situation?
A: You owe your company two weeks’ notice when you have another job lined up and a quit date in mind. Actually, you don’t even owe them the two weeks; it’s considered polite and useful, but it’s not legally required. There’s no guarantee that part-time, profitable work is going to present itself immediately after you begin your search, and it cannot possibly help you to announce vague plans to leave “eventually” without an offer in hand. All that would do is engender suspicion that you’re on the verge of quitting, and possibly mean you lose this job before you’re ready to quit. Keep doing your work to the best of your ability, and when you find the part-time, nonloathsome position that will enable you to begin freelancing, give your boss two weeks’ notice and help train a replacement before you leave. That’s all you owe them.
Q. Third fiddle: I’m dating a wonderful guy who I really care about. He’s divorced with a son and is a dedicated father—that is one of the many things I appreciate about him. His son is his first priority, and I completely understand.
The problem is I find myself playing third fiddle to his ex as well. He swears he would never want to get back together with her. He seems sincere about that, and I know she has a live-in boyfriend. They still text constantly, though, mostly about their son but not solely. Anytime she calls, he will drop everything to pick it up and leave me staring at a wall. He’ll also lie to her about where he is instead of saying he’s at my place, which makes me feel like the mistress. I also know he has purposefully never met her boyfriend, which makes it seem like he’s not totally resolved to the situation.
They did not use lawyers for the divorce, so they have a loose custody agreement. He lets her take advantage of the loose nature even if it means canceling plans at the last minute. As part of their agreement, she is providing some financial support. She accepted a lucrative job opportunity in another state. He agreed to move and she agreed to help him out with relocating. He claims the reason he’s being extra-accommodating is because she’s providing this support on a handshake agreement, but she has never actually given him any money, so part of me feels like that’s an excuse.
I know this situation broke up one of his previous relationships. We haven’t spoken about our intentions yet. He’s an incredible guy, but I couldn’t commit to playing third fiddle to his demanding ex. Is that what I would be doing? And if I know I can’t do that, do I have an obligation to tell him now, or can I let it play out and enjoy the time we have together?
A: Do you enjoy the time you two have together? What you’ve described sounds pretty unpleasant to me. You never know when a date is going to get broken up and you’ll be left “staring at a wall,” you know that his last relationship ended over the same problems that are plaguing yours now, and he’s made it pretty clear where his priorities lie. I don’t think playing third wheel to his demanding ex is what you “would” be doing if he were to move; I think it’s what you’re doing now. Regardless of how wonderful he is, and regardless of how convinced he is that he must put her first because of their unofficial custody agreement, the reality is that his first priority is his ex, and you rate a distant third. It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying that setup now, so I don’t see any reason why you should stick things out any further.
Q. Re: Socializing with dementia: Please sally forth and do not worry what people think. My mother is just into middle-stage Alzheimer’s and this social woman hasn’t let the fact that she repeats herself all the time or says the occasional non sequitur faze her. And you know what? No one cares. Strangers, waiters, and friends all take it in stride and respond to her warm personality.
She’s the same fun, upbeat, pistol she always was, and she doesn’t let a little thing like repeating herself change who she is. I admire her hugely.
A: There’s something to be said for not second-guessing yourself. The letter writer mentions that sometimes people exit conversations with him hastily, so his situation may not exactly mirror your mother’s inasmuch as not everyone seems to be taking his change in demeanor in stride, but I agree that friendliness and a warm spirit can go a long way when it comes to smoothing over uncomfortable moments.
Q. When the wrong friend gets you in their divorce: About five years ago, I became good friends with a husband and wife, “Bryan” and “Nicole.” Two years ago, Nicole broke up with Bryan and filed for divorce; this came as a shock to most of their friends, including me, and definitely to Bryan. They’ve remained fairly congenial, but of course, any divorce brings some prickliness.
The friends were divvied up, and apparently Nicole got me. She continues to invite me to parties, wants to vent about the divorce, and so on. While I enjoy Nicole’s company, I was always better friends with Bryan. I’ve done a few things with him since the divorce, but that seems to raise Nicole’s hackles. (Sometimes I would warn her before I saw him, but it didn’t help, and it doesn’t matter—our small town insures everyone knows everything eventually.)
There’s zero romantic interest between me and Bryan—I’m very much in love with my live-in boyfriend, and as far as I know, Bryan is still mourning his marriage and not ready to date. When I tell her as much, Nicole insists she understands. However, she remains both very possessive of me and resentful of the limited friendship I’ve retained with Bryan.
How do you arrange for your “joint custody” as a friend after the divorce? If I can’t, is there a way to switch custody from Nicole to Bryan? Honestly Bryan and I were the ones that had more in common; this seems to be happening only because I’m female. What would you do?
A: Nicole didn’t “get you”; you failed to cultivate a friendship with Bryan and let Nicole take the lead on continuing your relationship with her out of a misguided sense of what you were supposed to do in someone else’s divorce. If you want to spend time with Bryan, spend time with Bryan. If this damages your friendship with Nicole, frankly, it doesn’t sound like that’s a friendship you valued much in the first place.
You of course are not obligated by any rules to tell her when you spend time with him, but since things keep getting back to her, the next time Nicole expresses jealousy or possessiveness, tell her, “I’m sorry that’s hard for you, but please don’t try to put me in the middle of your relationship with your ex. I’d rather not discuss it.” Don’t allow her to draw you into an argument over whether you are allowed to be friends with her ex-husband. If she persists, draw back: “I told you I’m not going to get involved, please don’t keep putting me in this position.” End the conversation if she can’t respect that limit. The most you have to lose is a friendship you weren’t that keen on to begin with.
Q. My mother-in-law says untrue things about us in her Christmas letter: In the yearly Christmas letter that she sends to all her friends and family, my mother-in-law always seems to include some weird, untrue detail about my husband or me. After we got married, she wrote in her letter that we were adjusting to marriage so well, he and I wondered why we hadn’t tried it years ago (we got married six months after we started dating—no one was wondering why we hadn’t gotten married sooner). A few years later, she wrote that I was loving being a stay-at-home mom, although it was actually a difficult transition for me. And then this past Christmas, she wrote that my husband loves everything about his job except the commute: “He says if he could teleport there, everything would be perfect!” My husband’s commute is half an hour, and I haven’t heard him complain! I asked him about it, and he didn’t remember saying anything like that to his mom.
Should I bring this up with my mother-in-law? Her “anecdotes” are so small, but I hate that she’s putting words in our mouths, even if I don’t personally know the people on her mailing list. She’s generally a reliable, factual person, though I’m beginning to doubt some of the stories she tells.
A: I’m of two minds about this! Some of what your mother-in-law has written sounds like a fairly harmless embellishment—throwing in a complaint about a commute (which, to be fair, it’s entirely possible your husband shared a mild complaint about it with his mother and not with you) seems pretty mild to me, and it’s generally customary for Christmas letters to focus on the positive, rather than the unvarnished truth. If it were me, I’d probably just toss the Christmas letter after a quick scan every year, unless it contained some sort of outrageous claim. But if it troubles you, it’s certainly worth discussing with your husband; you two can figure out the best way to approach your mother-in-law if you decide you’d like to ask her to run any Christmas updates about your marriage past the two of you before mailing them out.
Q. Wedding thank-you card for guest whose wife passed away?: My husband and I got married a few months ago, and are at a loss of what to write for one last thank-you card for a couple who attended our wedding. The wife passed away very unexpectedly very soon after our wedding. My in-laws are good friends with this couple, and my husband and I attended the funeral and gave our condolences. But now we simply have no clue what to say in the thank-you card to the husband and his late wife. Any advice would be appreciated!
A: I think it’s right to acknowledge his recent bereavement in your thank-you card. Tell him how much you appreciated their gift, how glad you and your husband were that they were able to attend, and reiterate how sorry you are for his loss.
Q. Break up?: I love “Susie,” but I am wondering if I need to break up with her. I come from a very tightknit circle of friends. There was a lot of shuffling around of partners until we all got it right. “Amy” and “Alice” were my girlfriends before they ended up with my friends “Alan” and “Steve.” All this happened nine years ago, so it’s ancient history, right? Alan is my business partner and Alice is my personal lawyer (Steve stays home with their daughter). All of them are ridiculously happy. Susie has a huge problem with my past history with Alice and Amy. She is standoffish around them and gets paranoid if I am with them alone. I understood her paranoia since she was badly burned by her last relationship (her fiancé was sleeping with his ex-wife behind her back). I try being understanding. I have tried to be patient. We have gone to counseling and I have tried to get Susie integrated in our group. Nothing works. I feel like I am on trial for someone else’s crimes here. Susie and I are great by ourselves or with her friends, but it is starting to affect my work life. These people are not going away and frankly I just want Susie to give me the benefit of the doubt. I have been a good boyfriend this past year. I think I earned it.
Is there anything I can do at this stage? It feels so stupid to break up with a great woman over past girlfriends, but I can’t let this drag on any longer.
A: It’s not stupid to end a relationship where “nothing works” and you feel like you’re on trial. If Susie hasn’t done anything to meet you halfway, if counseling hasn’t helped, and if it’s affecting your ability to do your job, then end your relationship and find a girlfriend who’s comfortable dating a guy who’s friends with some of his exes and who isn’t constantly looking for signs he’s about to step out.
Q. Re: Making a smooth exit: You actually have another alternative. You can give your notice when you are ready, and then offer to help them transition on a freelance basis. Many people have done this.
Just be careful to structure your written agreement so that you are not committed to a set amount of time. Name your hourly fee and state that they own the rights to the work you do, and that this contract may be ended by either party at which point all hours worked must be paid. Cake and eat it too.
A: That’s certainly a possibility! For what it’s worth, the letter writer says they hated the job, and may not wish to stick around as a freelancer during the transition.
But if the letter writer thinks they’ll be leaving their former co-workers in a real bind and wants to offer a few extra weeks of (part-time, remote) assistance, then this is a great solution.
Q. Unwanted hug: I was recently picking up my fifth-grade daughter from an after-school program. I spotted her interacting with a group of boys and girls, got her attention, and motioned for her to meet me at the exit door. I then proceeded to grab her backpack and coat, which I was closer to. As I met her near the exit I turned to see a male classmate standing near her demanding a hug. She said “no” to the first four or five hug demands but was finally cornered and hugged regardless while crossing her arms and grimacing. During the hug, her eyes caught mine and it was obvious she was uncomfortable. I immediately spoke up, with a Guys, knock it off response. The male classmate then walked off. And that’s why I’m writing. I’m concerned I did not react strongly enough, that I should have done more to intervene.
I have since talked to my daughter, explained my feelings to her, and even apologized. I also asked her if she had expected me to offer more help. I let her know that when she says no, she should expect the other person to stop—and if they don’t, there is a problem. I explained that she needs to be able to speak and act with whatever power is needed to make sure the no is heard, acknowledged, and respected.
Should I have done more? Or am I overreacting? After all, it was just a fifth-grade hug—albeit unwanted, but from a boy she’s known since kindergarten and whose parents we know very well.
A: I think you did everything right in the moment. You picked up on your daughter’s obvious discomfort, you told the boy to stop, and you checked in with her afterward about how she felt about it, and reiterated that it’s not OK for someone to badger her into touching them after she’s said no. I can understand how the dynamics of the situation can set off alarm bells—Oh God, my daughter’s only in fifth grade and already I have to help her navigate a world of sexist entitlement to the bodies of girls and women, what other dangers are coming down the pike? But you responded appropriately and don’t need to do anything more than what you’ve already done.
Mallory Ortberg: See you next week, everyone!
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