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 do this!
Q. My therapist knew my husband cheated on me and shamed me for thinking so: My husband, “Barry,” and I have been married for 23 years. We have four children. I thought we were happy until, about a year ago, Barry began picking fights with me. I finally convinced him to join me in marriage counseling. We saw “Dr. Mary” individually and as a couple. Slowly, Barry admitted that he’d like to open our marriage. Dr. Mary was supportive of this and encouraged me to open my heart to the possibility. As Barry and I began communicating more healthily, I warmed to the idea. Then I discovered evidence that Barry had started cheating on me around the same time he started picking fights. When I confronted him, he told me everything—that he tried to find faults in our marriage to justify cheating and, even more shocking, that Dr. Mary knew about his infidelity. She told him to keep the affairs a secret, explaining that it could destroy our marriage if I found out.
I’m shaken to my core. For the sake of our children and the preceding 22 good years, I want to make things work with Barry. But I’m furious with Dr. Mary. When I confessed that I thought Barry could be cheating, she discouraged me from mistrusting him. I was vulnerable to her and paid her to help my marriage, and she recommended nonmonogamy, knowing we’d start off on a bad foot. Sex-positive therapists are difficult to find, but her behavior seems highly unprofessional to me. Should I bother relaying that to her—and, possibly, to the board that licenses her? Or am I misdirecting my anger?
A: I think you could certainly direct some more of your anger at Barry! That doesn’t mean you have to leave him, but if you’ve already decided you have to make it work with Barry because of the children and your previously happy marriage, I think you will be tempted to make Dr. Mary a scapegoat.
What she did was unkind and baffling—it’s one thing not to reveal a confidence that Barry shared with her to you in your joint sessions, but it’s quite another to encourage him to lie about his infidelity while also supporting the prospect of an open marriage. It’s certainly worth checking with her governing board to see if any of this violates her professional code of ethics, and you have every right to be upset that she encouraged your husband to lie to and manipulate you.
But your husband is the one who lied to and manipulated you. Your husband is the one who started having affairs, then started picking fights with you in order to distract himself from his guilt over his affairs, then lied to you in therapy, then tried to convince you that what you two really needed was an open marriage. You were vulnerable to him, and he recommended nonmonogamy despite knowing you’d start off on the wrong foot. So don’t let your anger flame out on Dr. Mary so that your husband can go back to being the good guy. There are serious problems in your marriage, and your husband has seriously abused your faith in him. Those 22 years may have been good together, but his behavior over the past year wasn’t simply a one-time lapse of character. It was ongoing, concerted, and profoundly unloving. I wish you all the best in finding a therapist you can trust whose primary goal is helping you figure out what you want and need, not helping your husband lie to you.
Q. Budget: I am working a low-paying job with a ton of student debt. I can afford to go out to eat, but I have keep within a strict budget. If I go out with a large group of friends, I immediately ask the waiter for a separate ticket. Several of my friends have their parents or husbands subsidizing their incomes, so getting the most expensive meal with several cocktails doesn’t phase them. I can’t afford to. One of my friends pulled me aside and scolded me on manners, saying that it was “tacky” to ask for a separate bill, and that if I was hard up for cash someone could cover me.
I was completely embarrassed and have since dodged invitations out. I don’t need charity. I don’t need a lecture on money management from someone in their late 20s whose parents still pay for her rent and car. How do I deal with my friends?
A: “Tacky” is so often trotted out as a blunt-force instrument when the speaker means “you’ve just reminded me that I’m uncomfortable with your relative poverty in comparison to me, and I want to make you so ashamed of the things you have to do to stick to your budget that you stop reminding me.” There is nothing wrong with asking a waiter for a separate check at the start of the meal—if the restaurant is fine with it, then your friends don’t need to worry about it. Saying “if you’re hard up for cash, someone can cover you” is lousy for two reasons. First, who on earth is “someone?” If she’s not volunteering to do it herself every single time, she can’t guarantee that someone else will. And second, you’re not temporarily short on funds, you’re deeply in debt and don’t make very much money. This is the way things are for you. You’re not going to receive a windfall in another week and suddenly make as much as she does. Asking a friend to cover you every time you go out, without feeling in any way embarrassed or indebted, is hardly the same thing as borrowing 20 bucks when you know you’ll be able to repay your friend the next time you see them.
Depending on how close you are, I’d encourage you to push back with your friend and let her know that what she said was unkind, embarrassing, and doesn’t address the reality of your financial situation. I realize it’s customary in this sort of situation to recommend alternatives to big pricey meals out (invite friends over to your place, suggest less expensive or free outings like a picnic or a walk, etc.)—I’m all for that, but I think this is worth speaking up about.
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Q. Getting back into the swing of things: My hubby and I are open to outside partners and have had a lot of great times in the last 20 years. Unfortunately we got a dreaded call from one of those partners saying that they had been exposed to a (fully curable) STI, and that they wanted to make sure we were tested as well. All three of us were disease-free.
I’m ready to put on my going-out shoes again, but my husband is much more reticent. This experience frightened him, and he’s put out a lot of fear-based what-if scenarios that are, frankly, over-the-top. We get tested regularly, use protection, and choose partners who do the same. I don’t want to push him back into our lifestyle until he’s ready, but I want to reassure him that we’re at no more risk than we have been since we opened up our marriage many years ago. Can I help him get back in the saddle?
A: How long has it been since you two got the call? If this happened a year ago and your husband is still fixated on this relative blip, then that might be cause for a more serious conversation. But if it’s only been a few weeks, then it’s fairly understandable that he might still feel a bit shaky, even if it’s not entirely rational.
However long it’s been, I don’t think your goal should be to hustle your husband through his anxieties so you two can return quickly to your customary sex life. Take the time to focus on each other. Talk about how he’s feeling, about his fears, about what he can do to reorient his thoughts when he gets locked into an anxiety spiral. If what he needs right now is to talk through “Hey, what will we do in the following unlikely-but-possible scenarios?” then talk through them with him. You can be reassuring and patient without agreeing that any of his worst-case scenarios are just around the corner. It may also help to see a doctor together to get specific answers to some of his more unlikely questions. You’ve been able to enjoy this open marriage for 20 years, so if he needs a few more weeks or months to re-establish a sense of security, then I think that’s a worthy investment in your future together.
Q. Grow up: I spent the last two years of high school in foster care after my mother died of a drug overdose and my religious maternal grandmother didn’t want to deal with a gay grandchild. I am a 27-year-old grocery manager and going to college for the first time. I clawed my way out of poverty by myself. I wouldn’t wish my life journey on my worst enemy, but I find myself perversely proud of it and contemptuous of other people’s familial complaints. In the LGBTQ groups I volunteer for, I hear stories of clueless parents being spoken to like they were burning their children at the stake because they used the wrong terminology or dislike a tattoo. I have to leave the room to keep from shouting, “Your parents are paying for your car and your college, your relatives still want to see you, you have a roof over your head and money to waste, you were never homeless, never hungry, and never had to rely solely on yourself at 17—please stop the martyrdom!” For all our common cause, my life experience has been completely different than most of the people I meet here. What do I do? I believe in the work, but sometimes I want to shake people awake to the privilege they grew up with.
A: This is a challenging line to walk, because I think on the one hand that it can be useful for people to contextualize something like “my mother dislikes my tattoo,” but on the other hand it isn’t generally helpful to tell someone who’s dealing with a problem that they should be grateful it isn’t another, more serious problem. If, right now, the best solution you have is to leave the room when the urge to start shouting overwhelms you, then I think you should keep doing so—better to leave than to say something you’ll ultimately regret and that likely won’t encourage anyone to rethink their problems. If the problem is an ongoing one, I think you should consider taking a break from volunteering and spending some time in therapy to figure out how you can best treat yourself with empathy and patience while living in a world where many people have not experienced the same pain and suffering you have.
I don’t want to place all the responsibility for change on your shoulders, however. If you think it can be helpful to distinguish between bad intent and simple ignorance—not that ignorance itself can’t be cultivated, willful, and ultimately cruel—when discussing family, then I think you should look for occasional, gentle ways to do so. That may not be possible at present, given the level of distress you feel when other people bring up family problems that don’t feel as serious as yours, but in the future it may very well be.
Q. Re: My therapist knew my husband cheated on me and shamed me for thinking so: Being a therapist to two parties is complicated and involves a separate set of rules. Depending on the state where the therapist is licensed (if there are even licensure requirements in that state), she probably should not have spoken privately to the husband without letting the letter writer know that there would be private discussions with the husband. The letter writer’s description of what took place warrants a conversation with someone at the licensing board—even allowing for the differences in perspective between parties in such a complicated situation, the therapist was probably wrong to talk to the husband privately like that. And yes, the husband is really the one at fault, as you explain. But the letter writer trusted the therapist to help with some serious marital and relationship issues, and it sounds like the therapist botched that rather soundly.
A: That’s helpful context, thank you! I think it’s wise for the letter writer to proceed cautiously and to learn more about ways in which the therapist may have overstepped her professional role, rather than to send off an angry letter while the letter writer is still in the middle of this painful realization about her husband’s dishonesty.
Q. Baby bump rudeness: I work in an office with several pregnant people. My partner and I are child-free, but we are happy for others who want to have kids. I made the mistake of confiding to a nonpregnant co-worker that babies weird me out, and that I find the general concept of pregnancy a little terrifying. I know plenty of folks birth babies every day, but the physical aspects of it sound just awful. This co-worker told one of the pregnant women what I said, and now she won’t stop finding excuses to press her very pregnant belly against me. I have asked her to stop, but everyone gets a good laugh about how much I am bothered by this.
How do I get her stop? I find it unsettling and am starting to think about switching jobs just so I can get away from these boundary-violating people!
A: I’m so sorry you’re dealing with something so bizarre and intrusive while you’re trying to get work done. If it feels indicative of a larger office culture that you’re not interested in being a part of, you can certainly look for work elsewhere. But in the meantime, you don’t have to put up with this woman routinely pressing herself against you. “I’ve told you to stop pressing yourself against me in the past, and you haven’t stopped, instead treating my discomfort like a joke. It isn’t. There is no professional reason for you to touch me like that at work, especially after I’ve told you I don’t like it. Are you able to stop yourself from doing it again? If you can’t, I will talk to our supervisor and HR, and we’ll come up with a strategy together.”
Q. My son believes I left our family, but I was bipolar and hospitalized: Thirteen years ago I suffered a series of manic episodes. I was a dysfunctional wife and mother at the time. I finally checked myself into a hospital. When I emerged six months later, I found my husband had filed for divorce and moved back to our hometown, across the country, with our then 5-year-old son, “Jimmy.” I was ashamed of my failure and overwhelmed by debt, so when my ex demanded full custody, I didn’t fight him. My ex quickly remarried his assistant—they began dating while I was in the hospital—and she became Jimmy’s mom. She loves him dearly, and I’m happy for that.
They told our friends and families that I became “a different person” overnight but have left out the fact that my bipolar disorder caused this. Most people believe I drank, slept around, and did drugs—including Jimmy. I didn’t feel like I deserved him, so I didn’t make any effort to correct his assumptions. But now that Jimmy’s approaching his 20s, I want to let him know that he could be bipolar too. I want him to be prepared for this possibility in a way I wasn’t. Doing so will expose his father’s lies, and I’m terrified of taking away the stability that Jimmy has. My ex doesn’t want me to discuss what happened, so I’m not sure what to do.
A: I think you should speak to your son if he seems willing, and if you feel like you have the support in your own life that you might need for such a big conversation. This is both potentially medically relevant as well as something you have every right to talk about. Your ex-husband was wrong to mislead your son about the nature of your absence from his life, and you don’t owe it to him to maintain the fiction he created years ago. I’d encourage you to consult with a therapist before getting in touch with your son to figure out the kindest and most open-ended way to initiate this conversation—you want to invite him to have the opportunity to speak with you about the nature of your relationship and his own possible future. I hope he takes you up on it.
Q. Update—Floundering: I submitted a question last week, “Floundering.” I really tried to take what you said seriously about ADHD and executive function disorder—no, I have never been diagnosed, and yes, I have mentioned my troubles to my doctor, who has never felt I had anything like this. But I feel your response was super off base. Getting bored or feeling a major or job is not the right one for me, even multiple times, doesn’t mean that I am unable to focus, manage time, or that I lose track of things quickly. I am really stunned researching executive function disorder. This is a hefty potential diagnosis for someone to ask another to look into who is not a psychiatrist! Thank you for your thoughts and for featuring my question, but I do not have this. I am actually extremely good about time management, focusing, getting things done on time, etc. I am just very confused about a career. I do not have ADHD or executive function disorder.
A: Thank you so much for writing back and letting me know that I was way off base, and that nothing about either of those potential diagnoses feels at all true to your own experience outside of work. I’m sorry to have overstepped your question in my answer. Since this challenge is career-specific for you, I think it’s a good idea not to sign up for any new school or business opportunities in the next year and spend time seriously considering the possibility of taking the managers at your current job up on their offer to train you for management. I know you’ve said there are numerous aspects of that job that don’t appeal to you, but you’ve also discovered a number of other professions that don’t appeal to you (and where you felt misled about the nature of the positions you were offered)—at least in this job you have a clear sense of the upsides and downsides, and have a number of supervisors who seem interested in supporting you. That option may simply not appeal to you, but I think it might help to at the very least pause on trying anything new for a while.
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