Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. How to ask for an open relationship: I’ve been with my wife for eight years, married for three, and we recently had a baby. I love my wife, and I adore our baby girl, but while I love my wife, I’m not “in love” with her anymore, and I’m no longer attracted to her physically.
Our relationship is more like two roommates who share parenting duties. She is my best friend, and I love her like a sister. I don’t want a divorce. Instead, I want to ask her if I can open the relationship.
Of course if we open it, I’d be happy to let her date as well. How do I gently broach the topic without hurting her feelings? I love her and I want to be happy, and even though I’m no longer attracted to her, I want us to continue to be a family. She knows something is wrong, but I’m not sure how to tell her how I feel. Please help.
A: Oh, dear. I’m not sure the things you want—to inform your wife you’re no longer attracted to her, nor in love with her, that you think of her as a sister, that you’d be totally cool if she decided to get a boyfriend, that you’d like to sleep with other people, and to keep from hurting her feelings—are compatible or even possible.
If you reread your letter, I think you must be aware on some level that you are not on the verge of breaking news of some cool, exciting new opportunity to your wife. You say she “knows something is wrong,” which suggests that she does not “love you like a brother” and has also fallen out of romantic love with you, and that she is not likely to be excited at the prospect of starting an open relationship together. Whatever you ultimately decide to share with her, I think you should be realistic about the odds that your confession will result in a divorce, whether you want it to or not.
The two of you just had a baby—not always the most exciting, sexy time in a relationship—and I’m inclined to think that if you sit on this confession for a little while, you may feel some relief over not rushing to share all of these feelings with her as they arise. That doesn’t mean you two can’t have serious conversations about your goals and your feelings, merely that you don’t have to share every single impulse that’s currently floating around in your head.
Q. Nudes: I am in my late 30s. My fiancée recently snooped through my computer files and come across some nudes of me and my first wife. Our marriage ended while we were in our 20s, and she died not long after in a car accident. I am angry my fiancée invaded my privacy. To make matters worse, she insists I delete the pictures, saying if I don’t, it means I am still in love with my first wife.
I have never been unfaithful in my life, although my fiancée’s ex was. I refused to get rid of the pictures, and I am annoyed at my fiancée for judging me based on her ex’s actions. The pictures come from a good time in my life when I was young and physically attractive. I enjoy looking at them, but that doesn’t mean I am having an affair with a dead woman. How do I talk sense into my fiancée?
A: It’s hard to imagine how your fiancée has been justifying her own behavior to herself. This is sort of a hat trick of classic bad behavior. She went through your phone without permission (bad), she’s trying to force you into disavowing a woman you loved over a decade ago as if there were any sort of meaningful competition going on between the two of them (worse), and she wants you to delete some of the few remaining photos you have with someone you loved who died because she has unresolved issues with her ex (worst).
I don’t know if you can get her to see reason on this subject, but I think you’re right to hold your ground and not capitulate to her distorted view of the situation. You can tell her you’re sorry that she’s experiencing distress, but that the problem very clearly has to do with her and not with any attempt on your part to cheat on her (!), and that she needs to find another solution to her problem. If she doesn’t pretty quickly come to her senses and let go of this, then I’m not sure you can get her to see reason—all you can do is see the writing on the wall.
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Q. Accidentally found out employee is looking for other jobs: About six months ago, a new employee, “Bill,” joined my small nonprofit team, working under me. Bill is a couple of years younger than I am, but earlier in his career, and I’ve tried to be supportive of him. Bill has a great personality and seems genuinely passionate about the mission of our work, but there have been some rough spots. Our team’s director, “Tom,” has a work style that’s difficult to adapt to, and he is not a great communicator. This has contributed to a lot of turnover in the last few years. Bill has also struggled in taking on the responsibilities of the job, and has made a number of disruptive mistakes. Bill and Tom seem to have developed a civil antipathy toward each other. I’ve been trying to work with Bill, encouraging him to ask for the help he needs, and to put systems in place to make his work more efficient and less error-prone, while I’ve also consistently talked up his achievements to Tom. I really believe in Bill’s ability to succeed in this job once he learns the ropes.
But then yesterday, when I pulled out one of the spare office laptops for an event, I opened it to find an email about a job Bill had applied for, and a cover letter for an application. I exited both right away, but I couldn’t unsee it. For what it’s worth, Bill knew I was planning to use that computer and must have just forgotten what was on it.
Now, I’m unsure how to proceed. I’m disappointed to see Bill looking for an exit so soon, and I’m sad that difficulty with Tom makes it so hard for us to retain staff. How do we move forward? Should I talk to Bill openly, and try to create a pathway for him to stay and grow in this role? Should I talk to Tom or other senior staff? Should I choose the smoothest course and act like it didn’t happen? If I were in Bill’s shoes, I probably would have woken up in the middle of the night remembering I had left a job application open on a work computer and be anxiously awaiting the fallout.
A: My instinct here is to let it go, but that may have more to do with wanting to keep conflict to a minimum after Bill and Tom have repeatedly clashed than with an appropriate sense of scale. I’d welcome responses from any other perspectives. If you were to talk about this with Bill, I think the only angle you could approach it from would have to do with the fact that he’s already prone to making unnecessary mistakes, and that not using office laptops to apply to other positions (although I’m not sure if he used that laptop/company time to apply for that job or if he merely received an email about it during office hours) might be an easy way to increase his focus and minimize distractions.
Q. Wine and resign: I am 22 and look 12. It doesn’t help that I am very petite with a high voice. I work very hard to dress professionally, but I am constantly referred to as “kid,” “short stuff,” or “sweetie” by my colleagues. It isn’t sexual, and it is mostly older women doing it. I have tried to laugh it off and asked people to call me by name, but I evidently always end up reminding them too much of their own children. At the last office party, I was drinking a glass of wine when a tipsy colleague grabbed it out of my hand and told me kids shouldn’t be drinking wine. I was so shocked. I stammered out that I was 22, and she demanded to see my ID. I was so embarrassed I went into the ladies’ room and broke down in tears. I ended up leaving early. My supervisor came around to see if I was OK, and to explain that my colleague had lost both of her children in a drunk driving accident a few years ago. Now I feel awful, and like it will make matters worse if I go to HR. I was hired for my technical skills, and while I have no problem doing the work, I can’t deal with the people. Help me please.
A: Oh, I’m so sorry. What a bewildering and jarring thing to have experienced at a work function. I can’t imagine how painful your co-worker’s loss has been, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to expect to be treated like an adult and a professional at work. I think this is worth going to HR (and speaking to your supervisor) about, not out of a desire to retaliate against this woman, but because it’s part of a pattern wherein your older co-workers repeatedly infantilize you and make it difficult for you to do your work. Asking to be called by your name and not have your credentials or expertise questioned on the basis of your age is a reasonable request in the workplace, and you have every right to insist upon it.
Q. Re: How to ask for an open relationship: How recently was your child born? It takes some time to get back to normal for parents when they have their first child, physically, mentally, and sexually. Maybe you felt this way before the birth, maybe not. Either way, it’s an exhausting new way of life, and to ask your wife about opening the marriage directly after having a child seems like a great way to seem callous and break the trust of the marriage. Why not raise your feelings and see what solutions she thinks of before breaking it wide open? Also, I doubt your wife is going to starting dating with a newborn.
A: There have been a number of letters—not all as gentle as this one!—carrying the same message: The first few years after the birth of a child are a pretty trying time. Introducing an open relationship on an unsuspecting partner is probably not the wisest, most considered response to having a newborn.
Q. Am I wrong to be relieved?: I have been friends with Angelo for seven years. He has a daughter, Alice, who was 5 months old when we met. I loved her from the moment I met her, helped care for her, and even taught her her first word. When Angelo divorced his wife, she took Alice away and repeatedly denied him visitation. The courts were no help. Now, Angelo and I are together, and we regularly care for Alice. As soon as Alice’s mom found out Angelo and I were together, she asked her mother to file a petition of adoption to take Alice from us. We called every lawyer in the book and even tried to get a state lawyer. We lost custody last week, and Angelo and I are devastated.
I love Alice and would have gladly stepped up to be her mom. What makes me feel bad is that a part of me is also a little glad that Angelo and I can focus on our future together and pursue our dreams without the cost and time of rearing a child. Am I horrible?
A: I don’t want to give a ruling on whether or not you’re “horrible.” For starters, I’m not sure it’s a useful question, and beyond that, I don’t think I’m qualified. But I don’t think the fact that Angelo has lost custody of his daughter means that you are going to be able to “focus on [y]our future together” uninterrupted. He’s still her father, and presumably is experiencing a great deal of pain over the fact that he’s lost custody. That isn’t likely to vanish overnight, especially if he continues to seek to establish some sort of visitation rights. Whatever the future looks like for you and Angelo, Alice is always going to be a big part of it. Being with him will always mean reckoning with his history—you can’t undo his previous marriage, his fatherhood, or his past.
Q. Re: Accidentally found out employee is looking for other jobs: As someone who has dealt with their share of supervisors that “contributed to a lot of turnover,” please talk to Tom.
If you knew his “work style” causes turnover, you should have been addressing this whether or not you knew about Bill applying for new jobs. Bill’s leaving is a symptom of a larger problem that needs addressing.
A: That’s a great point. The errors on Bill’s part are significant, of course, but it also sounds like you’ve been working closely with him to address them, and it’s not clear how aware Tom is of his own contribution to the high turnover rate, and how important it is for his “work style,” whatever it is, to change to prevent that from happening again.
Q. How do I talk to a loud co-worker?: On my floor at work there is a woman who has an incredibly annoying, loud voice. Other co-workers have complained to me about her voice, and a specific description I’ve heard from several of them is that she “sounds like a cartoon character.” Even though she isn’t loud most of the time, throughout the work day she usually takes a few extended phone calls or goes into a meeting with her manager, and at such times her voice echoes up and down the hallways.
I’ve tried wearing noise-canceling headphones to block her out, but her voice is too loud. Would it be appropriate to ask her to close her office door when she takes a call? Most of the other employees in the office leave their office doors open when making phone calls, and if I ask her to close hers, I’m afraid she’ll be embarrassed or offended. I’m sure she knows she has an unusual voice, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.
A: Of course it’s fine to ask someone to close their door when they take a phone call. That’s a perfectly reasonable, professional request. You don’t have to go into detail about what her voice sounds like, just say, “Hey, would you mind closing your door when you take calls? The sound carries through the hallways.” (You can also start asking others to keep their doors closed during calls too; it’s a good habit for everyone in the office, regardless of volume.)
Q. Re: Wine and resign: I thought for a moment you were describing me—I am also 22 and have been asked within the past year if I would like an under-12 kids’ menu at a restaurant. This is not OK. From the way you describe it, no one in your office is taking you seriously, and this will undermine you in the long run. I understand the desire not to make waves, especially since this seems like a “minor” complaint in comparison to other forms of office harassment, but go to HR. Your “tipsy” co-worker was out of line—whatever terrible thing happened to her children does not excuse her behavior, because you are not a child, much less her child! The fact that your boss apparently saw nothing wrong with her confusing you with her children (while drunk, but still) shows that they have tolerated this for too long.
A: That’s such a useful distinction. That your boss thought nothing of the fact that your (drunk) co-worker identified you with her dead children is definitely cause for concern, and worth bringing up again.
Q. Friend setup-resistant: On numerous occasions a female friend has said, “Oh, I really want you to meet so-and-so (another female friend of theirs).” They then present a reason, like, “You two would really like each other/hit it off,” or “You have so much in common.” They mean purely as friends—they know I’m heterosexual, so they are not trying to set me up romantically.
I welcome the idea of expanding my friend circle, but for some reason, these little meetings just aren’t that fun even if I do end up liking the person. In a way, it feels like it’s more about the setter-upper finding cohesion in her circle of friends and less about me. I feel totally different if someone has a party and I meet a friend-of-a-friend there on my own.
I’m trying to process my resistance to the three-friend meetup, when the intent is just to introduce two people who don’t know each other. Am I antisocial? I don’t think I am. Can I just say, “Thanks, but I don’t do friend-meets”? Or, “I’ll meet her when you throw a party”? What’s going on here, from your vantage point?
A: “Cool, I’ll look forward to meeting her the next time you throw a party” is a great initial rebuff. If your friends don’t take that first hint, then you can say, “I don’t enjoy pre-arranged one-on-one friend dates, but please introduce us the next time we’re all hanging out, and thanks for thinking of me.”
Q. You can pick your co-workers, but you can’t pick your nose: One of my co-workers caught me picking my nose in my car. Yes, picking my nose. Soon, I will have to see them again, and I have no idea how to deal. What the hell should I do?
A: Never mention it again, and live life in a slightly more vulnerable, compassionate, bruised way.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for that, everyone! Remember, save those “open marriage” conversations for at least two years out from the birth of your last child.
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