Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Put down your glitter pens, stop rifling through your employees’ desks—it’s time to chat.
Q. Wedding thank-yous: I got married in September, and then in February I found out my husband had kept a longtime girlfriend from me. It was all very traumatic and awful. Now we are getting divorced, and all I am concerned about is staying afloat during this difficult time. His mother and my mother keep asking about the thank-you notes for our wedding gifts. I never finished them. But how can I possibly write thank-you notes for money that’s already gone, and gifts that we got as a couple?
A: I’ll be honest, I’m anxious about answering this one after being so off the mark about thank-you notes last time. I’m so sorry your mother and mother-in-law, who presumably know you’re getting divorced due to your ex’s infidelity, are badgering you about thank-you cards. If there are any gifts you haven’t used, I believe it’s common practice to return them to the gift givers, although you might want to enlist a friend or relative’s help in doing so if you don’t have the time and energy to mail back a bunch of kitchen gadgets while navigating the sudden end of your marriage. For gifts you have used, a standard thank-you note is just fine: “Thanks for X product, which I’ve enjoyed using while committing Y task. Looking forward to seeing you during Z event.” There’s no need to reference your divorce. I also imagine, if your social circle is at all aware of the circumstances of your marriage’s bust-up, no one else is going to be hassling you over thank-you notes quite like your mother and mother-in-law.
Q. Bi-ex-ual: My ex has some issues around his sexuality and tends to discover he’s “actually straight” or “actually gay” once a year or so—usually by cheating on his girlfriend with a guy, and then the other way around. I was once that girlfriend and definitely thought I would be the one whose love would change him. Spoiler! It did not.
That was a few years ago. He is now dating Max, a co-worker of mine that I am work-friendly with. My family and friends all say I should warn Max, who knows my ex and I used to date, about my ex’s habits. I don’t think it’s any of my business—maybe my ex is finally happy with himself!—and that it’s best to keep my personal life out of work. However, it will be awkward if my ex hasn’t changed his ways and Max wants to know why I didn’t warn him. So, should I tell or stick to my minding-my-own-business guns?
A: I think the bar for telling Max should be higher than this, especially since you two work together. If you knew your ex were cheating on him now, that would be different, but if the only information you have is “several years ago he cheated on me, and I know he’s cheated on other people,” I don’t think that merits getting involved with a co-worker’s love life.
The peculiar twist your ex has put on his own infidelity—the idea that every year or so he “discovers” his true sexuality, the implication being that his cheating doesn’t really count as cheating if it occurred in the process of self-discovery—is cheap and shallow. But you’re several steps ahead of yourself if you assume that were your ex to cheat again, Max would somehow discover that the same thing had happened to you, and would blame you for not going into detail about the end of your relationship with him sooner. Continue to be friendly with Max at work but don’t go out of your way to get any more involved in his personal life than you already are, and tell your friends that you appreciate their input but aren’t interested in any more. The less you can have to do with your ex, even tangentially, the better off you’ll be.
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Q. Wrong number: My girlfriend and I recently had the Discussion about our past sexual experience. She asked, in these exact words, “How many women have you been with?” I answered honestly: one. However, my number is actually seven—one woman and six men. That phase of my life is behind me. Since then, I’ve been tested and received a clean bill of sexual health. I’ve been 100 percent faithful to my current girlfriend and will continue to do so. Still, I can’t help but feel like I’ve lied by omission. Do I owe her the full story?
A: I’m of several minds here! I don’t think anyone owes a current partner a total rundown of everybody they’ve ever slept with. While many couples may decide to volunteer that information to one another, asking point blank, “How many people (or any more specific derivative thereof) have you slept with?” is a lousy thing to do. Just because someone has asked you an invasive question does not mean you are obligated to answer it.
That said, I’m not sure exactly what you mean when you say “that phase of [your] life is behind [you].” Even if you don’t anticipate being interested in or sleeping with men again, I worry that you consider it a shameful part of your past that’s best left unacknowledged. If your relationship with this woman is predicated on the assumption that you’re both 100 percent heterosexual (or that you’ve only ever been with members of the opposite sex), then you might feel increasingly misunderstood and closeted with her. You don’t “owe her” the full story of everyone you’ve ever slept with, but if part of the reason you’re holding back is because you think she would judge you for having been with men, then I worry she’s not the right woman for you.
Q. Dog etiquette: I live downtown in a busy city area. I have a dog and we’re frequenters of a pet supply shop near my apartment. They have been wonderful over the last five years with helping socialize my nervous rescue dog by giving her treats and cuddles. The only problem comes when the employees dispense unwelcome health advice. My dog is prone to weight gain, and her latest veterinarian-prescribed diet plan includes low calorie treats purchased from the vet’s office. I bring these with me to the pet store and give them to the employees to give to my dog. Recently, when I gave the diet treat to a young employee, she raised her eyebrows and asked me what it was. I told her, and she launched into a lecture about how these treats were just empty carbs and how they wouldn’t help my dog lose weight at all. I kept my mouth shut, but I was annoyed. My dog is my dog, and I didn’t ask this girl for her judgmental advice. What can I say in the future if something like this happens?
A: Since these are people you see regularly and are generally friendly with, I don’t think you should look for a withering dismissal. I agree that her approach wasn’t ideal, but given how many years you’ve been going to this shop for help socializing and caring for your dog, I don’t think it was excessively over the line for one of the employees to express an opinion about pet care. That doesn’t mean you have to entertain their opinions about your dog’s diet, of course. Stick with something bland but discouraging, like, “I trust my vet’s advice and I’m going to give these a try, thanks,” and keep the conversation moving along.
Q. Speaking of wedding gifts … : My husband and I got married over a year ago. It was a second marriage for both of us and we are both older, in our 30s. We didn’t register for gifts, and when guests asked, we suggested they pick out a bottle of wine for us to enjoy. The thing is, out of 50 people who attended, we got three bottles of wine. The wedding was expensive, and we paid about $120 per meal. We weren’t asking for anything expensive, but a bottle of wine is a reasonable celebratory gift! The lack of thought our friends and family put into our celebration left me a little disappointed. I expected people would write a congratulatory card and give us a $20 bottle of wine. Instead, we got one card and three bottles of wine. Obviously there’s nothing we can do about it, but it’s made me rethink our friendships. I can’t imagine attending a wedding without a small gift and card! Are our friends rude, or are my expectations out of line?
A: My guess is that upon learning you didn’t have a registry, most of your friends gathered that you weren’t interested in gifts at all, and that you merely mentioned the idea of a bottle of wine as an option. It would have been lovely if all 50 of your friends had gotten you a carefully selected bottle of wine and a nice note, and I can understand nursing some slightly hurt feelings for a little while. But I don’t think your friends meant to be rude, I think they genuinely assumed that since it was your second marriage and you didn’t have a registry, you weren’t especially interested in gifts, just their presence.
While it’s perfectly fair to feel stung about the lack of cards or even token gifts, I don’t encourage you to connect that feeling with the amount of money you spent on the wedding. That was your choice, and not something your friends asked you to do!
Q. Break it up: I have been an avid reader of this column for years—of your writing as well as that of your predecessor. I have begun to notice a discernible trend and difference in advice from the previous Dear Prudence author and yourself: You quite frequently advocate for breaking up. You do your due diligence and suggest counseling, of course, but I can’t help but notice that you often leave the advice with an almost pessimistic assurance that the letter writer should just skip that nonsense and break it off now rather than later. I also can’t help but notice you don’t speak of a partner for yourself. Is there a reason you advise people to break up rather than have them work toward a reconciliation?
A: The implication here, I think, is that no one with a partner would advocate so frequently for couples to break up, because a partnered person would understand the importance of working through one’s problems and staying together. I don’t agree with that premise! It’s an eternal advice-column issue (others in my position have been asked similar questions in the past; Dan Savage even came up with the shorthand DTMFA because he was spending so much time advising people to end their relationships), in part because people with serious relationship problems are likelier to write to advice columns in the first place.
I think that peaceful solitude is infinitely preferable to an unbearable relationship. My definition of what makes a relationship unbearable may differ from yours, of course, but there are some problems that I don’t think can be improved by counseling or increased communication—differences on wanting children, for example, a lack of basic respect for someone else’s autonomy, extreme jealousy or controlling behavior, etc.
Q. Fuck-up flowers, forever: I occasionally do minor things that justifiably annoy my girlfriend. For example, I will accidentally get so drunk that she has to take care of me. This isn’t the problem. We are both flawed humans who sometimes do dumb things, but we’re very happy and in love. The thing is, whenever I do something like that, I get her flowers. She loves flowers, so this is a good system, but she doesn’t like flowers that wither and die, so I get her potted plants. The problem is, she’s a really great gardener and has kept them all alive! All of the plants in her apartment are now flowers I have gotten her after some dumb thing. I’m worried that my mistakes are now immortalized through these flowers, but they’re her favorite thing, and I don’t want to stop getting them for her. What should I do?
A: Get her flowers when you haven’t done something stupid.
Q. Update—He’s already trying to fix me: I wrote to you last about my boyfriend who thought his frequent, unsolicited advice was going to change my life! I ended up breaking up with him a few months after that, and then I noticed what a relief it was not coming home to him! I didn’t realize how stressful and dreadful it was having him in my life until he wasn’t there.
A: Anytime a breakup is followed by immediate relief that your ex is no longer in your home is a sign you made the right choice in breaking up. Congratulations!
Q. Worried about the big one: My husband, infant daughter, and I live in a two-unit condo building in a very expensive and earthquake-prone area. Given the extremely high risk of tremblors, we would like to perform a modest seismic upgrade to our building, which was built in 1928. We’ve even secured a grant from the state to offset some of the costs. The problem is that our downstairs neighbor has no interest in this. She is in her early 70s, and while she’s on a fixed income, she does not seem to be destitute by any means. I know she recently paid for much more extensive repairs to the building before we moved in. Should I keep pushing for the work to be done? While we bought the unit knowing that it hadn’t been upgraded, this seems like a reasonable step to protect both of our investments (and perhaps our lives).
A: If she’s on a fixed income and paid for extensive repairs somewhat recently, she may not have the money to contribute to another one now. It’s unclear if you’re looking for financial support or simply her permission—if it’s the former, I think you should move ahead without her participation.
Q. Re: Wedding thank-yous: I think the letter writer whose mom and mother-in-law—for real!?—are badgering her to finish up the thank-you notes while she tries to navigate divorcing her new husband over his infidelity should explain that, due to his actions, the thank-you notes are now his responsibility, and they should feel free to direct their badgering toward him from now on.
A: Oh, there it is; that’s the one. Perfect.
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