Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Morning, all. Let’s chat!
Q. Squeaky wheel: My older son has a learning disability, ADHD, and he is profoundly lazy. If he can squirm his way out of homework or chores in order to play video games, he will. His sister is the opposite: helpful, organized, and a perfectionist. She often appears to be on top of everything but often stresses herself out so much she can make herself sick. My wife is the stay-at-home parent, while I often travel for work. She will spoon-feed our son attention and encouragement and ignore our daughter. I try to keep the rules equal: no entertainment before homework, chores done before dinner, etc. My wife will bend the rules if our son has a “bad day” or “feels tired.” I will leave on a Friday and come back Sunday to find out my son, who spent the entire weekend goofing off, is just now starting his homework.
My wife and I fight about this often. She thinks I am overly harsh and critical of our son, and that the school system is stacked against him (his teachers and counselor agree with me). Worse, my daughter is struggling in math, and I didn’t find out until two weeks after she failed a test. She had asked her mother for help and was dismissed. My wife defended herself, saying that our daughter is smart enough to figure out things by herself and that she should have asked again if she was serious. My marriage and family are splintering apart, and I don’t think there is anything I can do. If I am here, I can mitigate things, but I have to travel if I want to keep a roof over our heads. My wife dismissed family therapy the last time I brought it up. Help!
A: It may help to think of the things you’ll have to do if you and your wife divorce over this. Were the two of you to share custody, you won’t be able to delegate her as the sole active parent when the children are with you. It may be impossible to change the frequency of your travel schedule—at least right now—but it may prove more helpful to consider possible compromises now rather than when they become inevitable.
The fact that your daughter failed a test isn’t the end of the world—that’s what tests are for—but you and your wife should figure out whether she needs a tutor or some extra homework help from one or both of you a few times a week. There’s still time to get her the help that she needs (and for what it’s worth, your wife’s belief that “smart” kids can always figure things out by themselves is entirely misguided). If your wife refuses to go to family therapy, that’s a shame, but I don’t think you should let it hold you back—you and the children could still benefit, if you think it would help you connect with them both and figure out how to meet their unique and distinct needs.
Q. Refusal by other means: My boyfriend and I have been together for six years. About four years ago, I aborted an unplanned pregnancy because he wasn’t ready to be a parent and I wanted my child to have two eager parents. At that time, we agreed we’d have kids in about five years. We have stable jobs, a huge apartment, and great health and disability insurance. Now he says I am “absolutely unable” to be a parent “at this moment” because of my mental health. (I have bipolar disorder. It’s fine now, but I had a significant episode a little over a year ago.) I am hoping to enter a Ph.D. program next year, and asked him if he would be interested in having kids before I graduate. He said that “could be doable.” I don’t want to do something “doable”; I want us to both be genuinely interested.
I always said I would have kids before I’m 30, and we’re both 27. I compromised before. Now, when I say I definitely want to have kids before 35 because I’m concerned about health risks later in life, he just laughs at me. He has been very adamant that he wants to have children and to have them with me. I like that he thinks things through, but I’m worried we will never have kids. Maybe he will always find something that’s not ideal about our situation, or want to do something else first (move to a different city, get a promotion, buy a second car, etc.). Do we need to break up? I can’t imagine life without him, but this is important to me.
A: I don’t know that you two are at an absolute crisis point right now, but it makes sense that you’re concerned. You have a number of years ahead of you before you’ve reached the age you’ve decided you’d like to have children by. Whether or not you two ultimately decide to break up over this—you certainly don’t have to wait until you’re 34 if you feel relatively certain that your boyfriend is less-than-enthusiastic about having children—I think the next thing on your agenda should be to learn more about the nature of his objections. If you’re currently receiving treatment and have been without a significant episode for over a year, what are his concerns when it comes to your mental health, and do you share them? Ask him what he means when he laughs at your proposed timetable for having children; what does he think is funny? What’s his vision for the next five to six years of your relationship? If he’s “adamant” that he wants children with you, what steps does he want to take so that you two are ready to do so in the next few years?
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Q. Don’t want to be a ghost: Sometimes after exchanging several messages on an online dating platform, I find that I’m not so compelled to meet someone in person. What is a good way to politely end a conversation or turn down a date? Typically, I end up kicking the can down the road, saying I’d like to meet up but am super busy the next couple weeks. I don’t feel good about this. In a small town, I am also mortified by the idea of running into someone who recognizes me as the girl who ghosted them.
A: I’m of the opinion that exchanging a few messages online does not mean one is obligated to provide a reason for not meeting up, although I’m aware there are other opinions on the subject. It seems unnecessary to tell someone you haven’t even met, “I’m sorry, but after talking more I just don’t want to go out with you.” I think your current strategy is relatively clear and also face-saving. You might, however, consider dropping the “I’d like to meet up later” bit if that’s not actually true, and simply say that you’re busy or not available, and leave it at that.
Q. BFF vanishing act: I barely ever hear from my best friend anymore. She cancels on most plans we make together, even though I have told her that I am at the point where I find her cancellations somewhat painful. This has been going on for a couple of years. The only time she texts me back quickly is if I’m helping her with something. I keep asking her if things can change, if we can spend more time together or text even a bit. She says things will change, but they never do. She had more time for me when her marriage was on the rocks, but now she and her husband are doing better. She has a demanding job, and I understand this, but I still miss her and love her. Is there anything I should be doing differently? When is the right time to let a friendship go?
A: I think the right time to let a friendship—or at least a certain idea of a friendship—go is after a couple of years of decreased contact culminating in hardly ever hearing from said friend anymore. That doesn’t mean you have to remove her from your life, but I think it’s probably time to accept that even though you’d like to hear from her more, her promises to prioritize you aren’t going to result in any actual change. Stop spending time asking her to reconnect and start spending that time on yourself (or friends who actually do want to get together with you).
Q. Sued by my e-date: Recently I received a demand for settlement letter from a law firm representing a guy who I dated over an online dating app for about two months in 2016. This guy is claiming he tested positive for herpes in 2017 and I am the source. They are asking for $750,000, or else they will file a lawsuit! First, I don’t accept the accusation. He has had many partners and his longtime ex already carried the virus. Second, as health insurances don’t test for herpes anymore, I assumed I was STD-free while with him until he asked me to go for the specific HSV test, which I did. I am not a wealthy woman and can’t even negotiate their act of extortion. This guy is a heroin addict and has a long history of suing innocent people. How do I deal with this case and get rid of this guy?
A: This sounds like an entirely frivolous lawsuit, but you should consult a lawyer and get an expert’s opinion on how best to move forward.
Q. Re: Squeaky wheel: I think different kids have different needs or strengths, so treating each of them 100 percent equally every day may not be feasible. Also, unless your kid is a junior in high school and you’re expecting them to go to Harvard, one failed math test isn’t that big a deal. The book That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School, by Ana Homayoun, has a lot of helpful information about helping boys who have trouble getting organized and completing homework. Maybe the parents can read it together and implement some of the suggestions.
A: I haven’t read the book, so I have no idea if it will prove helpful to the letter writer, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the test is just one of many his daughter will take in her lifetime. It sounds like his son has been getting plenty of attention and concern, so I wonder if it might be less helpful to read a book about how to offer him additional support than it would be to figure out how he and his wife can parent as a team and be there for their daughter just as much.
Q. My husband’s ex-wife still attends his family parties: My husband and I have been married for five years, and he was divorced three years prior to that. His family likes to plan events on Facebook. They’ll give a date and time and, since their gatherings are usually potluck, they’ll ask people to comment with what they’ll bring. His ex is still Facebook friends with almost everyone in his family, and she often shows up to these events. My husband has asked his family to stop inviting her, and they maintain that they never actually invite her; she just shows up. I’ve ended up skipping these family events, which are really uncomfortable for me. My husband has also stopped attending. His family is upset and, of course, I am taking the blame for that. I love my husband very much, but I can take or leave his family. He has asked me to start attending family events again, but I don’t want to unless they stop even inadvertently inviting his ex. Am I being selfish?
A: Is your husband’s ex difficult to be around, or is it simply the fact that she was once married to your husband that makes you want to avoid her? You don’t have to attend these events, of course, but if she’s otherwise polite and behaves herself, ask yourself if there’s a possible compromise. You may not want to see her twice a month, but if you can see your way to attending three or four such events a year, it might go a long way toward smoothing things over.
My read on the situation is that your in-laws are actually still fairly friendly with her and are trying to downplay just how she’s been getting invited in order to placate your husband. If that’s not the case—if they’re genuinely uninterested in her attendance and simply have no idea how to create a Facebook invitation such that only invited guests can see it—maybe your husband can help them out so they can avoid future situations like this one. And, of course, if the divorce was especially painful or if she’s gone out of her way to be uncivil to you, you have every right to decide you’d rather attend family-only functions where she hasn’t been invited, even if it makes your in-laws uncomfortable.
Q. I’m expected to cheer for a teenage wedding: One of my husband’s cousins is getting married next month to a young woman he met online and has only visited twice. (She is moving from across the country to be with him.) They are 19 and 21, with no college or vocational training. Both sets of parents are swept up in the fairy tale and will not hear a word against it. I do not think the couple is ready for marriage; my husband agrees but says they are going to do what they’re going to do. I have a work commitment that precludes me from attending, which offends my in-laws because I am “choosing career over family.” Should I attend the wedding and wish them well, or should I skip the wedding in favor of work and keep my mouth shut?
A: If you have a work commitment that precludes you from attending, I assume it would be fairly difficult to back out, so go ahead and skip the wedding. Send your regrets and a nice gift, and honor your commitment.
If your in-laws continue to push the “But you’re choosing work over your family” line, you can always fall back on, “I’d love to come, but I can’t get out of it; I’m afraid it’s not a choice at all.” Wish them well regardless of whether you attend, and keep your concerns to yourself, as you’re presumably not sufficiently close with your cousin-in-law to say, “I’ve got some reservations about this.”
Q. Loud therapists: Practically every day for lunch, I eat at a small café near my office. Among the other “regulars” are two therapists who eat together three or four times a week. They regularly discuss patients they’re seeing, loudly and in great detail. They seem to specialize in drug abuse. I have no clue what the ethics rules are around this, but the extent of their conversations is such that I could easily identify several of the people they talk about based on jobs and demographic information.
I do my best to tune them out, but it makes me uncomfortable to know that other patrons can also hear this confidential information, and that they might even recognize the people the therapists are talking about. Would it be appropriate for me to ask them to talk more vaguely, or quietly? Something along the lines of, “I don’t know if you realize this, but I worry the details you’re saying in a public place could break the confidentiality of your patients.” Or should I just butt out?
A: That’s a perfectly polite thing to request, and I think you should go for it.
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