Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Ortberg: Good morning, dear hearts and gentle people. Let’s get chatting.
Q. Not getting any: My husband of four years and I have an open relationship and date people separately. Lately, he has been fairly successful in dating, whereas I have not. I am happy for him, but I also feel jealous and angry that I am not having similar results. To compound things, our sex life has dwindled. He works evenings and is always tired when I initiate—which I totally believe!—but it leaves me feeling depressed and unwanted.
We have talked openly about these issues, and are trying to work through them together, but I am still struggling. Do you have any advice? I want to be able to be happy for my husband, instead of focusing on my own perceived struggles. I also wonder whether my dates notice that I’m not overly happy or enthusiastic, and how that could be compounding my dating troubles. I’m not sure how to advocate for myself while simultaneously treating my husband with kindness. I don’t want to nag or put undue stress on him, but I want to feel loved and desired! Can you help me sort this out?
A: I don’t think it’s putting undue stress on your husband—who is your partner in life, open relationship or no—to be honest about your struggles and to ask for the support you need. It’s great that you’ve been able to talk about your feelings with him thus far, and I think you two should discuss what you could do as a couple to prioritize the sex life the two of you have together right now. It’s great that he’s had success dating, but if his professional and personal schedule is so jam-packed right now that he doesn’t have time or energy to sleep with you, then that success comes at the cost of his primary relationship. An open marriage can’t possibly work if the “marriage” part takes a back seat to the “open” part. Scaling back, or even temporarily hitting pause, on his outside dating life so that you two can refocus on each other may go a long way toward relieving your stress and feelings of being unwanted.
Q. Changing his religion: When we first met, my husband and I connected on the notion that no one religion has it all right. When we got married, in my church, we agreed we would raise the kids in my religion so they had at least a foundation of some faith. We weren’t regular churchgoers, but went to mine when we did go. Two years ago, my husband reconnected with the religion of his youth and has become quite devout. His strengthened spirituality is not the issue. The problem is that he now “hates” my religion. He has adopted a very fundamental view of the Bible, which has made it extremely difficult to talk about anything but the weather. Our kids are now in their preteen and teenage years. Although he doesn’t typically speak against my faith in front of them, he definitely tries to convert them.
Our world has been turned upside down. I’m afraid to divorce him because he’ll only have more alone time to try to convert the kids. And we agree the kids would not handle a divorce well. When the kids go off to college, they would be adults and free to choose their own spiritual path and probably more able to handle their parents’ split. But how do I get through the next few years until then?
A: If the only reason you’re not pursuing a divorce right now is the fear that your husband will have more alone time with your children to try to convert them, then I’m not sure that spending the next six to eight years under the same roof is going to be a sustainable option. It’s true that divorce can be very hard on children, but in some cases, where the breakdown of the marriage relationship is total and impossible to disguise, acknowledging the split can sometimes be a relief, rather than merely distressing. That said, if you’re totally committed to waiting to divorce until your children are off at college, I think couples counseling will help you agree upon, at the very least, some rules for co-parenting. If your husband isn’t willing to go, go by yourself so you can figure out the limits you want to set. Make it clear to your children that they’re under no obligation to choose sides or to adopt a religion of any kind, and feel free to disengage from any religious debates your husband may want to rope you into.
I think the likeliest outcome is not that your husband will successfully convert your children to his particular brand of religiosity—it doesn’t sound at all attractive based on what you’ve described—but that he’ll completely alienate them. You say he’s now almost incapable of discussing anything but the weather without trying to connect the conversation to his newfound fundamentalism, and I can only imagine your children feel like they no longer have their father’s interest or attention unless it’s on his terms. Check in with them to see how they feel about religion being such a frequent topic of conversation, and make sure you can spend at least some time together where you talk only about secular things. If you eventually find that it’s not possible to do so and stay married to this man, I hope you’ll let yourself consider separation as an option.
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Q. Troubled sister, how to let her be an aunt: My 31-year-old sister is three weeks out from a monthlong stay at a psychiatric hospital for an extreme manic episode, consisting of extreme paranoia and delusions, including thinking everyone were Nazis. This is her first hospitalization, although she has a history of addiction, anxiety, and being overall difficult. Since leaving the hospital, she has not yet seen a psychiatrist, therapist, or been to a support group despite recommendations and encouragement. She has no job and might lose her apartment.
The reason I’m writing is my two girls, ages 6 and 2-and-a-half, who normally have a relationship with my sister. My sister wants to see them very badly, despite extreme emotional swings, and despite having sent me cruel and emotionally abusive texts on multiple occasions, unprovoked. She called my children “spoiled” and said she feels nothing for the younger one but feels like she gave birth to my older one. My therapist has advised me to hold off on allowing her to see them, but I am getting pressure from not only my sister but my mother as well. We tried to video chat, and my sister had an extreme trigger upon seeing my mother’s helper doing some dishes, so I’m not sure whether an in-person visit makes sense. How can I protect my two children from a potentially unhealthy situation but still somehow facilitate a relationship with my sister? Is this possible?
A: I think the most important thing for you to do is to separate out your own (perfectly understandable) concerns and resentments about your sister’s behavior toward you from the question of whether you think she can handle a supervised visit with the kids. Whether or not she’s able to keep her apartment or has a history of being anxious or difficult seems less important than what her most recent trigger response looked like when she saw your mother’s helper, or what “feeling nothing” for your younger child might look like in practice. Your sister is dealing with some extreme challenges right now, and I think you need to find some age-appropriate, non-stigmatizing, and non-judgmental ways you can speak to your children about their aunt. If any readers have experience trying to contextualize and explain serious mental health issues to their children, please let us know what’s been helpful to you in the comments. It may also help to plan, with the help of your therapist, how you would handle a visit with your sister if she had a trigger response or experienced a delusion, and under what circumstances you would cut a conversation short. That way you can go in with a plan, one that gives you a strong sense of what distinguishes discomfort from an actual lack of safety. Don’t let yourself be pressured by your mother’s preferences, and only plan a visit or conversation when you think the time is right.
Q. Is this cheating?: I just discovered that my (allegedly) monogamous partner of 24 years has been using Tinder to “chat” with others to “feel good about himself.” In today’s digital age, is this considered cheating? It is in my mind, but I’m wondering what the rest of you think. If it matters, Tinder was installed on a hidden secure drive—with a biometric unlock! (He forgot to hide the notifications, and I saw “Tinder: content hidden” pop up on his phone.) This is totally hinky, right? “Just to chat” is bullshit, right?
A: I think there are plenty of people who use dating apps primarily to bolster their own egos and remind themselves that they could land a date tonight if they wanted to, so I think there’s at least a possibility that your partner hasn’t actually gone out with or slept with any of the people he’s chatting with. (It’s also possible that he’s “trickle-truthing” you—i.e., there’s more to the story.) That said, it is entirely hinky that your partner has been using a dating app on a hidden drive and hasn’t talked to you about it, and you have every right to be upset about it, to ask questions, to feel as if your trust has been violated, and to object to the practice.
Q. Don’t actually want to be a whistleblower: In less than a month, I’m starting my second year at a small nonprofit. Last year, I got myself in hot water a few times by questioning certain practices that don’t align with my understanding of best practices and state regulations. There’s a very strict hierarchy, and I was very careful not to go over my direct supervisor’s head, but I did end up in an administrator’s office getting dressed down so hard I ended up having a panic attack and sobbing in my car before pulling it together for my shift. Previous experience I’ve had in similar positions leads me to believe that I am in the right to push some of these issues. But again, it’s a small, gossipy staff. and I’m already in danger of being branded a troublemaker.
This will be my last year in any case. Should I put in an anonymous call to the state and get us audited? There are definitely some violations going on. Should I continue to follow the proper procedures, to bring my concerns forward, even though previous efforts have burned me pretty badly? Should I try to keep my head down and just go home happy at the end of the day?
A: If the violations are such that you think you could go home happy at the end of the day without reporting them, then that’s certainly an option worth considering. If the violations could potentially endanger someone’s life or well-being, then that’s another question. Only you can answer that, of course, since I don’t know the specifics, but I think it’s worth asking yourself, what’s the absolute worst possible result that could arise from these conditions, and do I consider it serious enough to make an anonymous audit request after my previous attempts have failed?
Q. Re: Troubled sister, how to let her be an aunt: While I don’t know the sister’s medical status, it’s important to keep in mind that many psych meds take longer than four weeks to fully kick in. Your sister doesn’t sound stable. She might not even remember certain events, like saying that about your youngest. It’s important for her to demonstrate stability before she sees your kids. She can do that by following her care plan and being compliant with her meds. We had this situation in my family, and waiting for stability was the right call because our loved one also wasn’t following care plans and soon required a second hospitalization.
A: This is a helpful perspective. I can imagine that right now things feel deeply fraught and time-sensitive, and that if the letter writer’s sister isn’t able to see the children immediately, she may regard it as a referendum on her character or ability to be a part of her family members’ lives. But feelings aren’t necessarily reality in this case. Delaying a visit by a few weeks or months, and sticking to video chats in the meantime, is absolutely a viable option. You shouldn’t try to rush a visit before your sister is ready just because emotions are currently running high.
Q. Too much modern family: I’m a 28-year-old woman who’s been best friends with “Colin” since we were in fifth grade. Colin’s married to “Jim” and has an adopted 7-year-old called “Rose.” He lives several states away, but we visit at least once or twice per year. When Colin comes to see me it’s great, but when I go to see him we spend too much time with his family. Jim and Rose get included in all our activities, and it really bums me out not to spend quality time with Colin. It’s not that I dislike his family, but Colin is my real friend and I want to see him not them.
I’ve tried to suggest that he and I do things alone, but he says it would hurt Jim and Rose’s feelings. Now he wants to come and visit and bring Jim and Rose. They’re not staying with me, so I don’t really see how I can say no. Do you have any suggestions? I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t want to spend the entire visit talking to Jim and watching out for a small child. Can you give me a script for this?
A: I can’t, I’m afraid. You can’t ask someone to detach from their spouse and child just because you like them better, especially when it comes to taking a vacation. I understand that your friendship with Colin extends back to your childhood and that you feel a proprietary sort of connection with him, but just because you’ve known him since the fifth grade doesn’t mean you can ask him to periodically turn his family off and go back to being the unattached, free time–having single person you once knew. It would be one thing if you were asking him to occasionally get lunch together one-on-one, but there is no polite or reasonable way for you to ask him to travel without his husband and daughter. Your childhood friend now comes with a husband and child, and there’s no way around that.
Q. Re: Changing his religion: Please, seriously consider what it would do to your mental health to remain in a relationship with someone who no longer respects your choices in faith and is frequently trying to convert you and your kids. I was in a relationship with someone that also had a pretty “fundamental view of the Bible,” and knowing he felt the need to convert me eroded my self-esteem. I also felt drained trying to talk him out of extreme funks, which he experienced because he was daunted by the task of “saving” all our friends. You may think you can do it, but at the very least, consider that your kids need to be shown that it’s not OK for someone to be so disrespectful of their faith choices.
A: At the very least, I think the letter writer should feel she has the right to ask her husband to stop attempting to convert her. I don’t know what the children’s responses have been, but if they’ve expressed discomfort with his conversion attempts, it’s also fair to ask him to leave them alone. It’s one thing to express your religious views to your children and seek to ground them in an awareness of your faith tradition. It’s quite another to pressure them to adopt your own faith after they’ve declined to do so.
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