Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Annoyed ally: I live in a city with a large amount of LGBTQ and poly and kinky folks. Many are my friends. I am a white, married, heterosexual, cisgender person. While I try to be a good ally, I have noticed that many of the people I try to support cut me absolutely no slack when it comes to accidental faux pas. For example, when I referred to a drag queen as she, my friends screamed at me, saying that by using she I was being a rude bigot. When I explained that I had learned that pronoun usage from other friends who do drag, I was told I should know better. I wanted to ask, “How? Was there a memo that I didn’t get?” but I kept quiet to avoid another fight.
I am often made fun of for being “vanilla,” and asked why my significant other and I are monogamous when we should know that humans are not supposed to be. We do not judge people for their lives, so why are we being judged? I am not the only person who has expressed this frustration, and I am getting close to my breaking point. I want to tell people that if they don’t want me as an ally, I am happy to stay home on their various Pride days and do my laundry, and to stop trying to change my Midwestern relatives’ actually bigoted views. Is there anything I can do? Am I being yelled at because it is safer than yelling at someone who actually wants to remove gays from the military, believes trans people belong in mental institutions, or thinks BDSM is satanic?
A: There are two problems here: One is that a lot of your friends sound like jerks, and the other is that you’re threatening to withhold your support of the LGBTQ community on the condition of your individual friends’ behavior (which is itself a jerk move). If your support of gay people is conditional on specific gay people being nice to you, if you’ve genuinely considered letting your parents’ homophobia pass unchallenged because some of your friends have said judgmental things to you about monogamy, then what you call allyship doesn’t have a very solid foundation.
Some of what you’ve described is legitimately rude and unfriendly behavior, and you don’t have to put up with anyone telling you that you and your husband should stop being faithful to one another because you’re “not supposed to be.” But I’m not sure if you’re getting yelled at frequently, or if you’ve been yelled at once by a single person and feel particularly beleaguered as a result. Regardless, it sounds like that particular incident has really stuck with you, and it’s worth revisiting that conversation. If that friend has a habit of yelling first and thinking later, it might even be worth revisiting that friendship. This part of your letter—“I am not the only person who has expressed this frustration”—is a bit confusing to me. Do you mean that you’re not the only member of your social circle who’s been frustrated by that specific friend? Do you mean you’re not the only person who feels slighted when they’re teased about being “vanilla”? Do you mean you’re not the only straight person who, on some level, expects praise for supporting the LGBT community? It’s important here to be specific about on what grounds you’re feeling misunderstood and to look for ways you can address that. If these friendships aren’t bringing you joy, then focus on relationships where you feel genuinely listened to and respected.
Q. Bigamist, beyond a doubt: I was “married” for eight years, only to discover that my husband had still been married to his first wife the entire time. I divorced him in December 2016 so that I could retain the right to prosecute for bigamy for three years. I found out today that he is engaged again. Should I tell her? Should I prosecute? I would hate to see another woman go through the same pain I did. I want to do the right thing, but I have no idea what that is.
A: This meets the threshold for intervention, I think, especially if you have reason to believe your ex is still married to his first wife. Find the briefest and most succinct way to communicate your ex’s history to this woman, and make it clear that you just want her to have all the information, that whatever she does with it is up to her, and that you won’t try to contact her again.
When it comes to deciding whether to prosecute your ex, the most important thing you can do is ask yourself what your goals would be in doing so. The possibility has clearly existed in a vague sense at the back of your mind for the past two years, but you’re nearing the end of the window of possibility, and it’s time to start bringing things into focus. What would you hope to get out of prosecution? What might you stand to lose or gain? What would be an ideal outcome of such a prosecution? What would make prosecuting feel worth it, in short?
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Q. What do you say to a sex offender’s kid?: My uncle has sexually assaulted a number of women in my family, including my mother (his sister). After a long talk with a cousin whom he also assaulted, I decided to forgo a family reunion this year in order to avoid the uncle. His abuse is an open secret in my family, and my mom has been sadly complicit, going so far as to have made this man my legal guardian as a child. (She has 11 siblings—there were many other options).
I recently had a son and want to raise him without the confusion and murkiness around assault that I had to grapple with. That includes not letting him socialize with predators. The pickle is, this uncle’s daughter recently messaged me to see if I’d be going to the reunion! I’m not interested in keeping this guy’s secrets, but I also don’t think it’s fair to tear this woman’s world apart because her dad is a monster. Help!
A: Certainly you can tell her that you’re not going to the reunion, and you’re not obligated to furnish any sort of excuse. When it comes to speaking to her directly, I think it’s important to weigh the wishes of the women you know he’s victimized (at least in your mother’s case, it sounds like she does not want to be named as such) before deciding what to say. If you and your cousin (the one who was assaulted and whom you had a long conversation with earlier this year) are close, you might ask her for her opinion and see what she is and isn’t comfortable with you disclosing. It may be possible to strike a balance and take the anonymity of your family members whom he assaulted into account: You don’t have to go into detail about anyone’s identity if you were to say, “I can’t be around your father. I’ve spoken to women he’s sexually assaulted and I don’t want him around my child.”
Q. Clean up: My husband and I are newlyweds, and we moved closer to his family due to work and his parents’ health issues. My mother-in-law has hosted a recurring Sunday family dinner for nine to 12 people, including three brothers-in-law who are single or divorced, but she is no longer able to handle this on her own. I am happy to cook, but doing the shopping, prep, and cleanup is too much. I am exhausted by the end of the night, and I don’t even get a chance to actually talk to anyone. My husband says that you don’t ask guests to clean, but I disagree. I have directly told my brothers-in-law to get up and clean the table, but then my ill mother-in-law will get up to do it instead because she doesn’t want to cause a fuss! This just makes me feel worse. I am no longer enjoying Sunday dinners. I feel like I am trapped. Help!
A: Stop cooking weekly dinners for them. Please don’t feel obligated to pick up your mother-in-law’s tradition just because this family has decided en masse that it’s impossible for any of these single men to roast a chicken or dress a salad once a week. Family members who turn up for dinner once a week hardly count as “guests,” and it’s awfully rich of your husband to say you can’t ask anyone for help with the dishes, given that you don’t say he’s scrubbing any pots or pans afterward in gratitude for your hours of work. Tell him cheerfully that you’re retiring from kitchen duty and that if the family wants to keep getting together on Sunday nights, someone else is going to have to be the cook, or they’ll need to figure out a potluck approach. They may squawk, but hold firm. You’re not hurting anyone, no one’s going to starve, and I promise you, these grown men are perfectly capable of assembling a weekly dinner if they put their minds to it.
Q. Wife won’t break up with son’s ex: My 17-year-old son broke up with his girlfriend of about a year. While they were together, my wife formed a close relationship with the girlfriend; they texted each other and my wife would give her rides. To my son’s distress, my wife has continued their friendship after the breakup. She tells my son that his ex needs support and care. This is especially difficult because the ex-girlfriend isn’t taking the breakup well. My wife’s motives are good, but I think she is ignoring my son’s boundaries. Are my son and I wrong? If not, how to gently raise this?
A: I’ve previously heard from parents who stayed close with one of their children’s exes, usually because the exes in question were underage and being abused or neglected by their own families, and in those cases I’ve generally encouraged them to continue the relationship. However, it sounds like your wife isn’t helping out a vulnerable teenager so much as trying to play the role of confidante and peer in the wake of a fairly age-appropriate, standard breakup, and I think you’re right to ask her to back off. It would be better for your son’s ex to get support from friends her own age, rather than the mother of the guy who just dumped her. It’s counterproductive and may raise false hopes. Tell your wife that by no means do you expect her to pretend not to know or care about this girl, but that it would be kind to give her more space and not to provide her with endless opportunities to rehash the breakup or to turn to your family for comfort.
Q. Parking: The townhouse I bought 10 years ago has since been engulfed by a new development with little to no street parking. I don’t own a car because I am lucky enough to be able to bike to work or take public transportation. I have two parking spots in front of my home. “Carla” was a friend of a friend who I met at a party. She works in the same area that I live in and was moaning about the cost of parking. I offhandedly offered to give her a visitor tag and let her park in front of my place. This has been going on for a year now and I am more than a little sick of Carla. I got a single “Thank you” from her, and since then, nothing else. She has told other people—total strangers—to park in front of my home, and then gotten very huffy when I tell her I need the parking spots for when my family comes over. She even told me this was a “serious inconvenience” after I told her my dear friend would be coming up and staying with me for two weeks for a surgery. I want to end this relationship, but I have an anxiety disorder and Carla has a serious temper. I want this to end on good terms, but how? Should I give her a two-week notice?
A: I don’t think you two are on good terms now, so wanting to end things “on good terms” may be a trifle unrealistic. The good news, however, is that you can at least end things, and the bad terms will no longer be wholly on your end. Yes, you can and should tell Carla that you will no longer be able to furnish her with a visitor tag, and that your arrangement is coming to an end. Pick a date to call it quits (a few weeks’ notice is very kind of you), and let her know that she’ll need to make other arrangements in the future. Don’t come up with a bogus excuse or get drawn into an argument about why you should keep letting her use your spot. If you can’t stomach the idea of telling her in person and watching her throw a fit, then let her know over text or email. (That way, you’ll also have a written record, which can’t hurt.)
Q. Wedding plus-one uninvited: My cousin is getting married. I received an invite that explicitly included a plus-one. I RSVP’d for myself and my long-term boyfriend. My aunt has now reached out to me, stating that there is no longer room for my plus-one. My mother is offering to stay home so that my boyfriend can accompany me, but I think that this is so rude that I’m not sure I want to go at all. The groom is my cousin, but we are not close. The main reason I’m considering still going is to see other family members who I don’t often get to see. What should I do?
A: It’s rude, sure, but I’m not sure it rises to the level of “so rude I’m not coming to the wedding.” It sounds like your cousin has realized belatedly that the wedding is getting too big and expensive and is trying to pare down the guest list as much as he can short of disinviting specific family members. My vote is to swallow your frustration, attend the wedding, wish the groom well, see some family members you haven’t gotten to speak with in a while, and then go out with your boyfriend afterward.
Q. Re: Widowed sister-in-law moving on: Several years ago, my serious boyfriend died suddenly. I was devastated, as was his best friend. We turned to each other for comfort, since we were the two people closest to him. Within months, the relationship turned romantic, and we eventually became exclusive, and married two years after my boyfriend’s death. We both still miss my former boyfriend. We can still talk about him with love and fond memories, and we were able to continue to comfort each other through the grieving process when he died. At first, it was really difficult to tell people about my new relationship with my now-husband, because it began so soon after my partner’s death. Now, I am still in touch with my former partner’s sister and some of his old friends, and it’s fine. Just give it some time, understand it likely wasn’t planned, and while finding out about it via social media isn’t ideal, understand that it is likely difficult for the widow. She probably still misses her husband but is glad she can share the grieving with her new partner who understands what she is going through.
A: It does seem like this scenario—a recently bereaved partner and the best friend naturally turning to one another in the wake of death—is a fairly common occurrence. It makes sense to me; they both understand one another implicitly and have equally strong interest in discussing their shared recent loss. It’s not a sign that they didn’t care about the dead or that they’ve been secretly carrying on an affair.
Q. Update—Three Little Words: I wrote you a while back about my boyfriend, who wasn’t able to say “I love you” until he got a job. I took your advice and talked to him about it, mainly wanting to know why the job and the words had to go together, and how he was thinking about things. Turns out he was worried about potentially getting a contract somewhere far away and wanted to give me an “out” in case that happened. We discussed that scenario and also ended up talking through some deep insecurities we both had. Long story short, once we talked everything out, he immediately told me he loved me and that he had been debating telling me for a long time. And a week later he found a job in our city! So things have worked out, and I’m very glad I talked to him.
A: It is profoundly gratifying to hear, “We talked, things got better, and we’ve stayed happily together,” because sometimes it feels like that never happens. I’m glad to hear that your problem was fixable with increased communication, and congratulations to you both.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! May all of your baked goods be consumed only by the worthy this week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
“I am a man in my 20s and roughly three years ago I developed a medical condition that left me asexual. I used to be quite sexually active, excelled in athletics, and was a bit of an egotistical jerk. My asexuality was caused by a medical condition involving nerve damage, or so I thought. After giving up on treatment, and being severely depressed for about a year, and drinking heavily, I decided to try and make the most of it. I traveled and volunteered often, fell in love with an asexual woman who I love more than anything, and we are getting married in the spring, and am far kinder than I once was—people hardly believe it’s me. My family is stunned and now say they love having me around.
This has been the best time of my life, until a month ago when I had an accident at work (I do testing at an anaerobic digestion facility) and was tested for bacterial and fungal infections. It turns out I have a bacterial infection that may have affected my sexual desire and will be cured after a two-week course of medication. Should I take the medication? Should I tell my fiancée?”
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