Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody! Let’s chat.
Q. Go home: During my first year at college, I accidentally killed our neighbor’s toddler after backing out of our driveway. The child ran after a toy that landed in the path of my truck, and I never saw her. I wasn’t charged, as the death was declared accidental, and the lawsuit that our neighbors brought against us was dismissed in court.
I have been in therapy, and I understand on an intellectual level there was nothing I could have done to prevent this. However, I still can’t go home. It has been 12 years, the neighbors have moved, I have learned to drive again without having a panic attack, and my parents are old. My mother broke her hip, and her traveling days are officially done. But every time I think of visiting them, I flash back to that day and it makes me nauseated. I might vibrate out of my skin if I see that driveway again. I miss seeing my parents, but I can hardly ask them to sell their house for my sake. I find myself getting isolated from my family because of this. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.
A: I am so sorry you’re dealing with this, and I wish I had a better answer for you than simply, “This sounds difficult and complex, and I feel for you.” It makes a great deal of sense to me that going back to your parents’ home is not a viable option for you, and that it’s taken you years of therapy even to be able to drive again. I know your mother isn’t able to travel, but is it possible, at least once in a while, for the family to gather at someone else’s house who lives in the same city? Would they be able to occasionally meet you at a nearby restaurant, or at a hotel, if you were to choose one nearby? I think you have real grounds to ask for some compromise here, and I hope you get it.
Q. Beleaguered baker: I tend to stress-bake. So that I don’t stress-eat, I bring the baked goodies to work, neighbors, and my boyfriend. My boyfriend lives with six other people in a house. “Jerry” is my boyfriend’s best friend, but he has the social awareness of a drunk moose. He does not think about how his actions might impact other people. I will make enough food for everyone in the house, but some people don’t get home until late. If I leave a pie alone, there will be a single tiny slice left after Jerry gets to it. I have repeatedly told Jerry to just take one serving and leave the rest for everyone else; he will wait an hour and grab more because “no one else wanted them.” My boyfriend ignores my complaints and laughs when I ask him to talk to Jerry. I have smacked Jerry’s hand away from trying to sneak seconds, and it makes them both laugh.
The other people in the house have similar problems with Jerry, yet I am the one getting complaints when they miss out on the goodies. Last week, I had to make a birthday cake. I was having a problem in my apartment, so I had to use my boyfriend’s. I left the cake in a carrying case with a note on top asking that no one touch it. I went out for candles and came back to find Jerry stuffing his face. I got so upset I started to cry, which got other people in the house involved. Someone started pushing Jerry and calling him an asshole. My boyfriend intervened and said it was OK; I could just make another cake. This upset me more and I left. I ignored everyone’s calls and went and bought a store-made cake for the birthday party. I lied and told people that I had dropped the real cake.
My boyfriend has since apologized. Jerry hasn’t. I refuse to bring anything else over to the house. This, along with other issues, has the other roommates wanting Jerry to leave. Now my boyfriend wants me to make a big production of forgiving Jerry so he won’t get thrown out of the house. He says Jerry is his best friend, and that I just don’t understand. I think my boyfriend should side with me. He says he loves me, and we get along great when Jerry isn’t around. Am I overreacting here?
A: I think everyone is overreacting here. I don’t see why you’ve gone so far out of your way to put yourself in the way of additional stress when you turned to baking in the first place in order to relieve it. Clearly bringing baked goods over to your boyfriend’s house has been an exercise in frustration and dissent from the jump, but you’ve continued to do so for reasons that seem hard to pin down. I agree that Jerry sounds like an unpleasant roommate, but the rest of your boyfriend’s housemates—and your boyfriend—don’t seem very calm, thoughtful, or reasonable. Why are they pushing one another over a piece of cake, when cake is so regularly brought to their house? Why have you made it your business to adjudicate how the desserts are apportioned among the housemates after dropping them off? Why did your boyfriend and his roommates make it your responsibility to make sure they can agree upon a shared-food policy when you don’t live there? Why did it take a physical altercation and being pushed to the point of tears for you to decide to stop baking for these people? Why does your boyfriend think your forgiveness is necessary for his roommates to decide to continue living with Jerry? Whether or not this group decides to keep living with Jerry is not your problem, and you should not involve yourself. Ask yourself what you’re getting out of this entanglement, and consider how much more enjoyable your life might be if you decided to focus your energies on a hobby that actually relieved some of your stress, rather than one that unnecessarily created more.
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Q. Cheating … but not like that: I have a not-a-problem problem. My fiancée is great, and I love her so much. About a month ago, however, we watched the first episode of a food-travel show on Netflix. Before watching said episode, my partner had mentioned how she doesn’t like food shows because they make her hungry and want to travel. She fell asleep about halfway through the episode. I said, “If you don’t like the show I can just continue watching it on my own.” She said she liked it, but again reiterated her general dislike for food-travel shows. Still, she said she would watch Episode 2 with me.
A few days later, when I asked about watching Episode 2, she said she didn’t want to that night. I asked a second time, and again she said, “Not tonight.” It seemed she was not very interested in the show. She said she wanted to watch Episode 2, so I took that to mean she just wanted to watch Episode 2. I skipped ahead and watched Episode 3 without her. About a week after the first episode, we watched Episode 2 and again she fell asleep. She reiterated her general dislike for food-travel shows. This is when I told her Episode 3 was really good and that I thought she would like it. She then claimed I cheated! Prudie, we need your wise ruling on the subject. Did I engage in Netflix cheating?
A: One of my most passionately held beliefs is that “Netflix cheating” is not a thing. Dating someone does not mean one has also inherently agreed to only watch television shows at the same pace and with the same degree of enthusiasm. Watch this show you enjoy whenever you feel like it, whether or not your girlfriend is interested, available, or conscious, and find something else you both like to watch together. If a generally enjoyable, low-impact pastime like “watching TV with your girlfriend” is turning into this much of a battleground, then you two should look for other hobbies to enjoy together.
Q. Thank-you notes of a different sort: Last year, I moved to a new city while going through a difficult depression and feelings of loneliness. To combat this, I went to a local gay bar where a man, “Theodore,” came up to me and invited me to hang out with his group for the night. While we did not end up becoming friends, as we had nothing in common, it definitely gave me a boost of confidence, and it always meant a lot to me that he went out of his way to make me feel included. Today, I am much more comfortable and have a small group of friends of my own. Theodore and I are still friends on social media, and every time I see his name I think about messaging him to let him know how much his act of kindness touched me. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little odd sending it. I’m sure it seemed like a completely inconsequential thing to him, and I’m afraid I’ll come across looking completely irrational. Should I let him know how much his invitation meant to me, or should I just let this acquaintanceship be what it is?
A: This seems sweet and totally appropriate. Sending a brief private message over social media is casual and low-impact, and you can forestall your own discomfort by saying something like, “I feel a little goofy even saying this, because it was such a little thing, but I just wanted to thank you for inviting me out with your friends last year. I’d just moved to the city and was having a hard time feeling like I was fitting in anywhere, and that evening gave me the confidence I needed to start branching out and making new friends. It was awfully kind of you, and it helped me more than you know. I hope you’re doing well. [Feel free to trail off into some other vague pleasantry here.]” That will make it clear, I think, that you want to thank him for what he did, not that you’re looking to establish a closer intimacy with him now.
Q. My therapist is into alternative medicine: I’ve always been very firmly in the science-and-skepticism camp, and I have a pretty high amount of disdain for alternative medicine and the hucksters who sell it. My therapist has a habit of suggesting things that, to put it bluntly, are bunk. Until now it’s been stuff that, while utterly false, is also stuff I can see otherwise smart people doing, like juice cleanses. But now she’s suggesting “grounding,” one of the worst ideas to come out of the alternative-medicine industry. You’re supposed to buy patches and bands so that you can be constantly “connected to the Earth.”
I have access to my therapist through a chat-app service, and I haven’t responded to her since I got the message about “grounding.” It’s not unusual for me to go a week or so without responding, so I can get away with not replying for a bit, but I’m struggling to work out what to say. I want to very firmly shut down her advocacy for this nonsense, but I also don’t want her to think I’m being closed-minded or treatment-resistant. I’m also struggling with the idea of continuing with her at all. I’m not really sure if I can take her seriously anymore. Any ideas on how to talk to her about this?
A: You can absolutely shut down her unhelpful suggestions, and I don’t think you should worry about whether that makes her think of you as closed-minded: “I don’t want recommendations for alternative medical practices. Let’s stick with talk therapy and strategies with a proven track record.” If she doesn’t back off, or if she tries to guilt you into considering additional out-there purchases, then that’s a sign that she doesn’t demonstrate good judgment and can’t respect boundaries—and a sign that she’s not a very good therapist, and that you should look for someone else.
Q. Re: Beleaguered baker: The bigger issue, maybe, is your boyfriend’s lack of support when Jerry ate a cake that you had clearly labeled as off limits. He said you could “just bake another one”? This wasn’t a cake for the house; it was yours, for another event. Jerry was way out of line, but so was your boyfriend for sticking up for him. Was this a one-time thing, or does he have trouble taking your side in things, especially when it involves the dudes in his life?
A: Oh, that’s an excellent point. There was so much going on in this letter that I didn’t even get to the boyfriend’s part. What is this guy doing? Why is he so keen to let you take on so much responsibility for his living situation, and why is he so eager to volunteer you for more cake duty because his roommates have bad manners?
Q. Can’t move in with best friend: I’m in my mid-20s and am currently planning on moving back to my home state for a new job, meaning I’ll need to find another apartment. My best friend of 15 years still lives with his parents, who are wonderful people but sound very overbearing to live with. As I’m preparing to move back and apartment-hunt, I feel like my friend keeps dropping hints about us moving in together. The thing this, I can’t. I care about and love him deeply, but I don’t have any desire to live with him. How do I say that without him hating me?
A: The low-conflict route here is simply to ignore his hints. As long as he doesn’t come out and say, “I think we should move in together,” you don’t have to acknowledge what he’s only implying. That may not work for very long, unfortunately, and it helps to have a stock answer prepared in advance. I’m not sure what it is about your best friend that makes you think living together wouldn’t suit, but try something along the lines of, “In my experience, living with close friends doesn’t work well. I’d rather live with someone I can treat as ‘just a roommate.’ ” He may be disappointed, but unless he’s demonstrably unreasonable, he’s not going to hate you for not wanting to live together. Plenty of best friends never do!
Q. Re: Beleaguered baker: I don’t agree with your take on this. The problem seems to be Jerry has no sense of boundaries. She baked a birthday cake at her boyfriend’s house due to issues with her appliance. It wasn’t for their house. She left a clear note requesting it not be touched, and Jerry ignored her perfectly reasonable boundary and ate it. People who understand boundaries understand that not everything in a shared house is theirs and keep their hands off other people’s things unless invited. Jerry’s lack of boundaries, and her boyfriend’s enabling of that lack, is a sure recipe for disaster if she stays.
A: Oh, I absolutely agree that Jerry has bad boundaries and is generally rude. That’s why I think it makes a lot of sense that his housemates are considering kicking him out of the house and why I think the letter writer should have stopped providing him with free food—which he neither asked for nor seems especially interested in thanking her for—a long time ago.
Q. Writing to you from the pits of hell: I share an office with “Alice” and “Evelyn.” I run very hot; they run cold. I wear as few layers as professionally possible, but when they crank the temperature up to 80 or 82 degrees on a warm spring day, I melt. I feel nauseous and dizzy, and I’m a sweaty mess. We’ve spoken about the temperature several times. We’ve lowered the thermostat to 72 degrees (ideally, it’d be closer to 70), but as soon as I leave our office, they’ve turned the heat back up. I’ve avoided involving management because, come on, we’re adults, and it shouldn’t be hard to figure out a happy medium. I’ve also kept a record of our conversations on the topic. What’s the best way to approach this issue? I can’t function when it’s 82 degrees.
A: This does seem like something you should bring to management’s attention, if for no other reason than to keep down the costs of your office’s heating bill. 82 degrees is not a reasonable temperature for an office! Many people would have difficulty getting work done in such a sweltering setting. Share this issue with management, as well as your record of failed attempts to sort it out amongst yourselves, and ask for an official ruling on a standard room temperature so that you can refer back to it should you find Alice or Evelyn trying to turn the thermostat back to punishing levels.
Q. Re: Worried about the big one: No, do not move forward without her permission. Instead, check the local laws and your building’s governing documents. They may have something to say about undertaking capital improvements without buy-in from the building’s majority.
A: Thanks for that reminder! Always a sound idea to check in with city hall before merrily undertaking renovation.
Q. Update—Wedding dress feud: Greetings from Hawaii! Just as an update, the wedding is off. I am currently on my honeymoon sans husband, so it’s a breakup vacation really. After talking to my ex about the dress for the 500th time, he refused to do anything. So I talked to his mother myself one last time, which led to a fight where she called me an “ungrateful b—h.” When I told my husband, he sided with his mother! I packed up my stuff and moved out! Thank you for your advice!
A: I am so happy that you are on this honeymoon alone. I’m terribly sorry you went through any of this in the first place, but at least your almost–mother-in-law gave you the gift of clarity by behaving like an over-the-top caricature of an evil mother-in-law. Enjoy every second of this vacation and every second of the rest of your life that you never have to spend with this family again.
Q. Update—Wrong number: Original letter writer here. As I am rereading my question I can see I left out some important details. My girlfriend didn’t ask me point-blank about my sexual past—it was more of a conversation about sexual activities that went in that direction. I really don’t believe she was being invasive or malicious in any way. I learned about her past sexual experience too. As for the “it’s behind me” part of this: I had thought I might be bisexual, and after six one-night stands, I realized I am not. The one other woman I’ve been with was from a serious relationship. So it’s not so much about being ashamed of anything but more that the experimentation phase of my life does not accurately represent how I identify today. I don’t think my current girlfriend would harshly judge me for my past, but it would certainly be an awkward conversation to have. I’m leaning toward not saying anything, but I’m certainly interested if you have any other thoughts as a result of this new information.
A: That is helpful to know, and thanks for clarifying. If you don’t want to have an awkward conversation with your girlfriend, you definitely don’t have to, especially about a (relatively brief) period in your sexual history that seems to have answered pretty conclusively the question of where your interests lie. But I do think that if things continue with her and you feel more comfortable, it might be worth discussing. Lots of people have sexual experiences that don’t necessarily line up with their present identification or that don’t neatly track with the general trajectory of their romantic life. It’s not something you have to explain away or spend a lot of time dwelling on—it’s just part of what made you the person you are today. If you ever do decide to speak with her about it, I think that should be your approach. You sound pretty settled, and I think she’ll be able to understand the fact that you once slept with a few guys to sort out whether you were bisexual without totally revising her mental picture of you.
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