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, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. The plot plot: My husband and I are in our early 40s and have been together about 15 years. We have two kids and a good life. After my father-in-law passed away a couple of years ago, my husband mentioned that we needed to be more diligent about getting our affairs in order—wills, guardianships, etc. I agreed, and we’ve had some discussions about it. I found out today that he bought and paid for a single plot next to his father, and apparently his mother and siblings did the same. I was not consulted and had no idea.
Understandably, I am hurt and confused. I assumed we would make this sort of decision together, and I thought we would purchase plots together. I feel blindsided that he did this without my knowledge. Worse, his parents live in a different city than we do, one that I have no connection to or ever thought I would want to be buried in. When I confronted my husband about his actions—gently, I might add—he was totally dismissive and defensive. He said the plot could be sold and didn’t apologize.
Am I way off base here? Isn’t this the sort of decision couples should make together? Or is this not a big deal since we’ll be dead anyway and won’t care where we are buried?
A: You are not wrong to be upset. It is very difficult for a person to be wrong to be upset, although it is possible to act badly as a result of feeling upset. You feel upset and want to talk to your partner about your feelings—that’s a perfectly legitimate position. It’s not a sign that you need to care less simply because your husband does not agree with you. That’s what respectful fighting is for, when two people who love one another feel differently about a fraught, mutually significant decision.
I don’t think you should get especially hung up on whether this is the sort of decision “couples should make together.” What’s important is that this is a decision you want to make together. While he’s right that you can sell the plot, you’re also right to want to have a conversation together about when and where to make burial arrangements for yourselves. Revisit the conversation, not in the interest of convincing him that he was objectively right and owes you an apology, but in the interest of letting him know that you felt left out and that you want to make decisions like this together.
Q. Racism in the family: A while back, my stepbrother made a racist “joke” in a group text with my white family and my non-white husband. My husband took offense and explained that he was struggling with how to address or even verbalize his feelings because he’d never had racism come from within his family before. I was—and still am—horrified. I have done everything I can to explain the problem to my family, all to no avail. My dad ended up telling my husband to “get over it,” and no one apologized or took the chance to become better white people.
I’m heartbroken. My husband’s relationship with my dad will never recover, and I feel sad and embarrassed that my family was so close-minded and defensive. How do we move on from here? How do I try to educate them so we can maybe have a better relationship someday? We have a son, and I don’t want him to wonder why we’re so cold and distant with one side of the family, but I also don’t want him or my husband to experience any further pain as a result of my family.
A: That is sad and embarrassing for your father’s side of the family. It would have taken a few minutes for your stepbrother to say, “It was racist, you’re right, and I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” It would have taken no time at all for your father to decline to defend your stepbrother’s decision to text a racist joke to everyone. I think you’ve tried to educate them already. I don’t think the problem is that you were too quick to shut them down, or that you failed to facilitate a meaningful conversation about race. I think they chose to double down when provided with the opportunity to change. They decided they didn’t care about your husband’s feelings as much as they cared about their ability to text racist jokes.
The change that has to happen before you and your family can have a meaningful relationship again won’t come from you, so I think you should turn your focus to talking to your son (in an age-appropriate way, and with your husband as a team). I think you’re right to prioritize your husband and your son’s well-being and to set limits with your family, painful as that may be. You can hope they come around and long for them to eventually divest from their racism, but you don’t have to put your life on hold in the meantime.
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Q. Outreach after suicides?: With two recent, very prominent suicides, I’m wondering if I should be saying or doing anything differently with friends in vulnerable states. I have a few friends who are in treatment for depression, and a few who are just generally having a hard time. (I know that neither depression nor painful life events and emotional distress necessarily indicate a likelihood of suicide. These are just the folks in my life who I worry about.) Beyond telling them how great they are and checking in to say “Hi,” is there a way to indicate that I’m here if they want to talk about anything serious without making them uncomfortable?
A: If you’re already aware that a friend is going through a difficult time, I think it can be helpful to be more overt about your intentions (without making it sound condescending or like you’re extending an official welfare check). It’s great to start with “I’m here if you want to talk about anything serious,” then get specific—tell them you’d love to hear about how their treatment is going, if they feel like their new therapist/doctor/support team is going to be useful to them, what’s been on their minds lately, etc. That’s a thoughtful instinct, and even if your friends don’t have anything significant to share, it’s a good thing to do.
Q. Gazing into the abyss of the gift horse’s mouth: My sister-in-law graciously agreed to take free senior pictures for my graduating daughter this year. I was happy, since she also took my son’s pictures and they turned out beautifully. But I was shocked when I received my daughter’s senior pictures. She had recolored my daughter’s hair, photoshopped the lines off of her nose, dyed her eyes a different color, and warped her limbs with a liquify filter in Photoshop! I was stunned but politely noted that these pictures had been edited more than my son’s. She said, “I didn’t need to edit your son’s pictures”! When I asked if I could have some copies of the raw files, she said she didn’t save any.
I didn’t want my daughter to actually use the awful pictures, so we laughed about it and I quickly paid a family friend to take better pictures. The problem: We invited my sister-in-law to her graduation. Her school played a slideshow before the ceremony, and it included the updated pictures my daughter submitted. My sister-in-law noticed that we didn’t use her pictures and seemed affronted. Now she’s asking me to write a review of her photography business on Facebook and to spread the word to students who might need her assistance. Is there a polite way to extricate myself from this situation?
A: “It was very kind of you to offer to take pictures for the kids’ graduation, but I can’t review or recommend your business because the photos you took were unusable, and I didn’t want you to Photoshop my daughter. I don’t say this to hurt your feelings, or because I don’t want you to succeed, but I hope you don’t do this to customers in the future.”
Q. The office nail-clipper: I have worked in many different offices, and for some reason, several of my co-workers have found it acceptable—no, necessary—to clip their nails at the office. Two questions: 1. Ugh, why do people do this? 2. Help me come up with a script to politely but firmly confront the latest culprit? He likes to clip his nails during the lunch hour, and it ruins my appetite when I hear him go to town.
A: I have no idea why someone would clip their nails at the office. It is a baffling, hostile act, and I will cheerfully go on the record against it. “Please do that in the bathroom or at home” is the only script you need; I think it’s helpful to be slightly chilly and brief here rather than run the risk of even accidentally lending the act some legitimacy by making a request, or providing justification for not wanting to hear tiny bits of nails clattering softly on his keyboard.
Q. Sister-in-law: My sister-in-law lost her 2-year-old son a month before my wedding. My husband and I already had spent thousands of dollars on non-refundables, and my family was flying in from out of the country. We went ahead with the ceremony. (We had a prayer said at the church.) Obviously, my sister-in-law didn’t come, nor my mother-in-law because she was taking care of her daughter. My husband and I understood. Then I immediately got pregnant and had a little boy. My sister-in-law couldn’t stand to be in the same room as me (she would get up and leave if I came in). If my husband and I were at an extended family gathering, she would stare at me from across the room until we left or the host asked us to leave. She referred to me as that “selfish cow,” among other ugly names, to people in our family.
I understand grief is complicated, and losing a child is a pain I can’t imagine. But it has been three years. She dotes on my son to an extent that makes me uncomfortable. My husband has tried to stand up for me, but it devolves into family squabbles. (He wouldn’t bring our son over if I wasn’t welcomed, and that turned into me being the witch denying an aunt her nephew and a grandma her grandson.) We have been very isolated from the rest of the family because of this.
My relationship with my mother-in-law is strained because of her closeness to her daughter. I am currently pregnant again. My sister-in-law has spent thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant again. I am tired and terrified of having a repeat of my first pregnancy. I don’t want to deal with the headache of what action or inaction offends her this time. I wish she would be civil to my face and just hate me in private. I would apologize for anything if it would end this, but I don’t have the power to bring back her son. I can’t make the world fair but I am sick of paying for it.
I have no clue what to do other than to her cut out of my life, but that means cutting her out of my husband’s and children’s. It means an open wound in the family I see every day (we live in the same small city as everyone). My husband has offered to quit his career and move away for me. I don’t want to ask him for this, but I just don’t know what to do anymore.
A: I think you should seriously consider your husband’s offer. If you have other reasons for wanting to stay in your small town, you don’t have to move, of course, but I think the general principle behind his offer—that your current situation is untenable and that it’s not possible for you to see your in-laws regularly—is a sound one, and that you two have every right to significantly restructure your relationship with your husband’s family.
Q. When love isn’t quite enough: My partner and I are high-school sweeties who’ve been together for a decade, but we’ve been long-distance the last two years for career reasons. We visit when we can, but living apart I’ve developed an independence I’m proud of; I’ve slowly realized that, though we share a deep love, we’ve outgrown each other as romantic partners.
Now he’s decided he’d like to move back ASAP, and resume where we left off. I feel rushed to make a choice—before he shows up on my doorstep ready to play house again. I want to have this breakup talk in person—we’ve been so close for so many years, and we’re both affectionate, softly spoken people—but I am swimming in grad school debt and would have to put flights on my already sad credit card. My other option is to FaceTime or phone to say, “Don’t pack up your new life for me!” but that seems so impersonal. It’s going to hurt each of us, and I want to honor our history, but all options seem to suck. I can’t think of anything else. What would you do?
A: Have the conversation over the phone. You’re right that it’s an impersonal ending to a relationship that’s lasted a long time and meant a great deal to you both, but you shouldn’t put yourself in further debt just to break up in person. One caveat: You say that you’ve “outgrown each other as romantic partners,” but given that your partner is eager to move in with you, I don’t think you can truthfully say that. You have outgrown him. Don’t try to frame this as a mutually beneficial decision when he may very well feel differently. Let him have his own feelings about the end of your relationship, and don’t feel like you need to justify your decision to break up by implying that you both feel the same way.
Q. Need a seat: I’m heavily, obviously pregnant. I live in NYC and take public transit every day, and it is an exceedingly rare occasion that I’m offered a seat. In fact, I’ve been twice asked to surrender my seat to older people. Aside from the general discomfort of standing while very pregnant for upwards of a half-hour, I’m lightheaded and recently fainted. How do I ask for a seat? I’m aware that the seemingly healthy young people often sitting when I’m standing may have an invisible disability, so I’m afraid of asking for a seat from someone who might legitimately need it.
A: “I’m pregnant and need to sit down. Can anyone offer me a seat?” That will avoid the potentially awkward situation of accidentally asking someone who also needs to sit to make way for you, while also making your needs apparent.
Q. Re: The office nail clipper: A few years back, my husband was setting up at a new desk at work, opened a drawer, and found …. the previous occupant’s nail clipping collection. A neat little carpet of clipped-off nails, lining the bottom of the drawer!
A: I will spend the rest of the day striving to forget that I have read this.
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