Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Chatty therapist: I have struggled with mental health issues all my life, and many therapists I’ve tried seeing haven’t worked for me. About a month ago, I started seeing a therapist I really like, and I feel I could make great progress with him. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have great boundaries. He’s told me a lot about his life, including offhand comments related to his finances and details of his sexual history and relationships. He also lets sessions run past the time they are supposed to end. Are these red flags, or are my anxieties about him—like my anxieties about so many other things—unfounded? He truly seems like a caring and insightful person who could really help me, which has been so hard for me to find! But his self-disclosures make me a little uncomfortable.
A: They’re worth noticing and discussing, certainly. Why don’t you bring them up with him and see how he responds? “We’ve been working together about a month now and I wanted to check in and see how things are going. I feel like I could make real progress with you, but I’ve noticed that sometimes you let our sessions run long and share details about your personal life that I haven’t asked for. I’d rather our sessions begin and end on time, and focus on my experiences rather than hearing about your past relationships or finances. Does that sound reasonable to you?” If he’s agreeable and willing to make those adjustments, then that’s great. If he gets defensive, or if he’s merely agreeable in the moment and goes back to his old habits, then you know it’s time to look for a new therapist.
Generally speaking, especially when it comes to therapists, I think great boundaries are worth more than caring and insight. Great boundaries and being caring are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the absence of the former can never be made up for by the latter.
Q. There can be only one nana: My mother is upset because my daughter has started calling my current and former stepmothers “Grandma.” I am close to my former stepsister, as we grew up together and now live in the same area. Her mother watches my daughter along with my stepsister’s kids. My father and his new wife also live close by, so we see them often. My mother moved across the country, so we only see each other twice a year, though we talk on the phone more often. I understand she is hurt, but I am exhausted by her insistence that I explain to my toddler that she only has one real grandmother (my husband lost his parents young). I have tried to get my daughter to call the other women Nana or Maw Maw so I can save everyone’s feelings, but this doesn’t satisfy my mother. The last time my daughter talked to her on the phone and told her about Nana taking her to the zoo, my mother got upset. She told my toddler, “That woman is not your nana,” and I had to grab the phone away. My mother is still upset, and I don’t know how to fix this. Please advise.
A: Your mother is fighting a losing battle. I can sympathize with her feeling pain at living so far away from her granddaughter, but my sympathy stops when she tries to make a 4-year-old child responsible for her feelings of exclusion. Tell her this: “Mom, this is really counterproductive and needs to stop. My daughter is 4 years old and she isn’t trying to hurt or exclude you when she calls [Ex-Stepmother] Nana. They’re part of her family, whether or not they’re blood-related, and that’s reality whether you like it or not. She knows that you’re her grandma too, but there’s not a limit to grandmotherhood, and no one is trying to take anything away from you. You have two options: You can focus on getting to know your granddaughter when you do get to see each other, or you can push her away by demanding she love her other grandmothers less in order to make you feel better. I think the first option is better, and will make you a lot happier. If you insist on the second, I’m going to cut our conversations short.”
Q. My cat is cheating on me with the neighbor: I have had my cat for eight years; I saved him from being put to sleep when his old owner moved overseas. Lately he has been coming home sporadically, if at all. I found that he has been spending much of his time in my neighbors’ house. I asked them to stop letting him in and feeding him, as I don’t want to turn him into an indoor cat. However, I’m not sure the neighbors or their children are going to listen to my requests. What should I do?
A: There’s a limit to how much control you can exercise over your cat once he goes outside. If your neighbors don’t seem inclined to take your request seriously, then I think your best option is to let your cat out less often. If you don’t want to turn him into an exclusively indoor cat, then find some times that your neighbors are less likely to be active and limit his excursions.
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Q. Co-worker best friend promotion drama: I’m in my mid-30s and work at a large company where I met my absolute best friend about three years ago. Although we work in different departments, off the clock we’re inseparable and spend most weekends together exploring our city or going on exciting road trips. Recently, management opened up a new position on my best friend’s team. The leaders of that team and my own boss have all encouraged me to apply for it. Even though this position would require significant training and is outside of my area of expertise, it’s something that I could grow into that would also allow me to develop professionally. My friend, however, had a different reaction to everything. He would primarily be responsible for training whoever is hired for this role and said that if he was tasked with training anyone with a higher job title and salary (which I have), he would become resentful of that person having an unfair deal and would probably quit the company.
If the situation were reversed, I have no doubt that I would fully support this friend because I respect his professional abilities and always want the best for him. Should I still apply for this job even if it damages our friendship, or should I recognize that jobs come and go but best friends are rare?
A: Apply for the job. Best friends are great, but best friends don’t pay your rent, and you don’t have to choose between having a best friend and getting a great job. If your friend isn’t prepared to help train someone who makes more money than him, then he either needs to adjust his attitude when it comes to working as a team, ask his boss for a raise, or both. (It sounds like there may be a reason he hasn’t been encouraged to apply for the position himself.) Apply for the job, and don’t make yourself responsible for his outsize reaction; either he’ll get over it and realize you’re not doing anything to hurt him, or he’ll quit as promised and you two can socialize after hours without the pressure of working too closely together.
Q. Wedding woes: My sister lives to shock other people. She dabbled in witchcraft in high school and got tattoos as soon as she turned 18. She’s dyed her hair, shaved her head, dropped out of college, run off with a musician, etc. She is currently 27 and involved with two men. I am getting married out of state. Our budget is tight, but I put money aside to fly my sister out. Last week, she called to chew me out for sending her an invitation and “only” a plus-one. She demanded that both her boyfriends be invited to my wedding. I told her that wasn’t possible, so she called me a b—h. I hung up. My parents are concerned that not having my sister at my wedding is going to create a permanent rift in our relationship. I am dreading my sister’s attendance, as I fear she is going to make a spectacle. At our family reunion, for instance, she and her then-girlfriend showed up drunk and started to make out. I feel like I am caught between a rock and a hard place. My in-laws will not be immune to my sister’s actions like my family is. I don’t know what to do. Help?
A: I think you already did what you had to! You extended an invitation and a plus-one and a plane ticket to your sister, and she declined; now you can go ahead with planning the rest of your wedding. The purpose of a plus-one is to provide everyone who attends the ceremony with a guest, not to invalidate polyamorous relationships. Perhaps this will create a permanent rift in your relationship, perhaps it won’t, but it’s not your parents’ rift to manage, and it’s not incumbent on you to mend fences when your sister’s the one with unreasonable expectations.
Q. Re: Chatty therapist: As a social worker, we’re taught not to self-disclose (talk about ourselves), because that can detract from our therapeutic relationships. Therapy should be all about the client, not the other way around. That being said, it’s not really a red flag for me. But if that’s not something you’re comfortable with in sessions, you’re well within your rights not to want to hear him talk about himself! As for letting sessions run past time, I’d honestly think of that as a gift. Lots of therapists rush their clients out, which is understandable if somewhat of a shame. But again, if this doesn’t work for you, that’s what’s important.
A: Yes, one of these issues does seem a lot less important than the other—an extra five minutes of therapy a week doesn’t sound too bad, as long as he’s not endlessly delaying the end of the session. And the other could certainly be a low-stakes issue, especially if he knocks it off after learning his client doesn’t want him to share personal anecdotes. I agree that nothing (yet) seems like a big red flag. (At least he’s not also seeing the letter writer’s father and passing along personal information!)
Q. Girlfriend jealous of girl friend: I have been friends with “Becca” since we were toddlers. She has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. We have never slept together; the very idea makes me a little queasy. “Kylie” and I have been dating for about a year, and I think I love her. Kylie is very uncomfortable around Becca, and she reacts badly to any affection I show Becca. A side-hug will make Kylie unhappy for hours. Nothing I do seems to make Kylie trust me. I let her see all my texts and emails to Becca. I explain that Becca is basically a sister to me. Kylie tells me she understands, but she never acts that way. She refuses to spend time with Becca one on one. Kylie has been in some seriously emotionally abusive relationships before me. She sees a therapist on campus, but sometimes I feel like I am on trial for crimes I haven’t done yet. This is seriously affecting my friendship with Becca. I can’t imagine a life without her, but I want a life with Kylie. It feels like being asked if I want my left or right arm chopped off. I need both of them in my life, and I haven’t done anything bad. I don’t want to have to choose. How do I let Kylie know—really know—that I love her and only her, but Becca will always be a part of my life?
A: The problem isn’t that Kylie doesn’t really know that you love her. The problem is that Kylie wants to guilt you into giving up your best friend to satisfy her own jealous, controlling impulses. The fact that simply side-hugging a girl you’ve known since infancy is enough to send Kylie into a sulk for hours (in what’s obviously an attempt to punish you into never doing it again) is really troubling. Whatever Kylie’s past partners may have done doesn’t in any way excuse or justify the way she’s treating you now. Ask yourself if you would ever treat Kyle this way. Would you demand to see all of her text messages with her best friend, refuse to socialize with the people who are important to her, tell her that you understand she needs friendship in her life but then withdraw emotionally for hours if you saw her hug a friend hello? I don’t think you would, and I think if you reverse the situation, it may help you see just how unreasonable and unjustified Kylie is being. You deserve a partner who trusts you, who wants you to have friends, who doesn’t try to isolate you or punish you for caring about other people. I know the idea of breaking up with Kylie seems impossible, but you deserve better, and Kylie doesn’t give any indication of wanting to change.
Q. Sweet and sour dad: I am in college and live many states away from my family. My father has been wonderfully supportive of myself and my younger siblings over the past few years, however this was not always the case. I know his intentions were always good, in the sense that he wants his family to be happy and healthy, but his past difficulty with impulse control has been haunting me. There were years where I would witness him physically abuse my little brother in small ways: flicking him, pulling his hair, spanking him out of the blue, etc. Although this all subsided when my brother became a preteen, he was deeply impacted. He perpetuated reactive and unnecessary violence against other children, as well as self-harmed by punching himself in the head when frustrated. He seems to be doing well lately, for the most part, as my parents have put in a lot of effort to remove pressures on him. But I feel lingering trauma. I was some years older than my brother, and I feel deep guilt for not stopping his abuse. Now that I am a young adult, I am an advocate and no longer a bystander for any injustice, and I have a strong urge to act on these memories and open a dialogue with my dad about whether my brother ever received therapy or an extensive apology.
Ultimately, we are a fun, loving family, and I am proud of my father for investing so much time and energy into personal growth. He has been more compassionate and apologetic to me, especially during some mental health crises, but I’m worried he doesn’t realize my brother deserves the same. My father subscribed to a classic model of gender identity, and so being a girl might be the only reason I’m allowed to cry. Would it be destructive to reopen these old wounds that everyone seems to have left behind? I don’t think of my dad as a monster, but I want justice for my brother who witnessed rage that his young mind could not comprehend. I love them both deeply and feel torn.
A: I think you should talk to your brother before attempting to open any sort of dialogue with your father. It doesn’t sound like you two have ever spoken directly of it, and when you say he “seems to be doing well,” it suggests that there’s a distance between the two of you that needs to be bridged before anything else. Don’t just call him up out of the blue and unload on him, of course—ask him if he would ever be amenable to discussing your childhood because you want to acknowledge the abuse he experienced and apologize for not being able to help. (I think it’s worth drawing a distinction between apologizing for not being in a position to help rather than as if you could have but failed to. As another child, it wasn’t your responsibility to stop it, and this is the sort of apology that simply acknowledges that what happened to him was painful and real and shouldn’t have happened.)
It sounds like he’s still living at home, so don’t pressure him if he doesn’t feel like he has the space and distance necessary to discuss the not-so-distant past. It’s also possible that your father has not, in fact, stopped his abuse of your brother, and that he’s simply grown better at disguising it. The fact that he treats you well—given that your brother seems to have long been a scapegoat—is no indicator that he’s changed toward your younger brother. As long as your brother is living at home, I’m concerned that any attempts to discuss your father’s abuse may result in your father lashing out toward him, so be cautious, consult a therapist, and check in with your brother first. Someone needs to say to him, “I saw what happened to you, and it was wrong,” so that he doesn’t feel like everyone else in his life is suffering from collective amnesia.
Q. Update—Virgin bikini wax: I talked at length with my boyfriend about going for professional waxing. He understood why it bothered me but couldn’t find a male aesthetician. So, he opted to keep taking care of it himself. Although we’re waiting for marriage, we have no problem with talking about sex and intimacy. I don’t find his grooming performative and hence think there must be cheating or anything of the sort. I just felt oddly jealous and insecure on this one point. I worried he would feel resentful about my insecurity (I don’t know why, he’s always been wonderful, but that’s anxiety for you), but above all he just wants me to feel secure and happy.
A: I’m so glad to hear that you two have talked and feel better about the situation! Momentary flare-ups of jealousy can happen to just about anyone, and it’s not dangerous to discuss them with your partner, especially if you can do so in a self-aware, rational way.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: See you next week, everyone! Thanks for chatting.
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