Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. What constitutes domestic violence?: I’m a guy and I got into a heated argument with my boyfriend a few days ago. I became silent and nonresponsive, and out of frustration he flung his coffee mug in my general direction, though quite far away from me. This is the first time something like this has happened, and we generally communicate well with each other. He regretted it instantly and was profusely apologetic afterward.
We resolved the issue in the moment, but I have since felt angry about his violent act. He still regrets his action but says it’s unfair of me to call it “physically abusive.” I’m finding it difficult to get over this because abuse is something I find unacceptable in a relationship. He says it wasn’t physically abusive because it could not have hurt me—which is true. He denies that his casualness has anything to do with our gender—I still think it does. I have never felt unsafe in my relationship, but should I accept his “I’m really sorry for what I did but it wasn’t abusive” apology?
A: Your boyfriend’s primary concern right now seems to be not “Why was my response to seeing my partner get quiet to throw a coffee cup in his direction in order to frighten and possible hurt him into giving me another reaction?” but “How can I make sure my partner agrees that throwing a mug toward him is not abusive, and by extension that I am incapable of committing abuse?” That worries me. He may not have aimed it directly at your head, but he certainly didn’t throw that coffee cup to reassure and peacefully engage you—it was an act designed to startle and threaten you into talking to him. He found it unacceptable that you weren’t speaking, and he was willing to resort to the threat of violence to make you start. The message of the thrown coffee cup was “I’m willing to throw things to get what I want,” and the implication is that next time he might aim more directly for you.
This happened only a few days ago, and already he’s trying to minimize what he did. I don’t think this is much of an apology, and it certainly doesn’t give me hope that he’s likely to change in the future. Your anger makes a great deal of sense to me, and I think you should talk to your friends, and potentially a therapist, about how you’re feeling, why you find yourself unable to “get over this,” and what support you might need in ending this relationship. Just because you’ve never felt unsafe with him before doesn’t mean you owe him another chance, especially when his initial apology was immediately followed by backtracks, minimization, and justification. This is a line that no relationship has to cross.
Q. Compliment conundrum: My boyfriend of six months is truly one of the best people I’ve ever met, and a stellar partner. He’s kind and thoughtful, a brilliant listener who makes everyone feel heard. He has a great work ethic, and is smart, creative, funny, practical, and a feminist. He’s good in bed. He runs his household like a responsible adult. I love him and look forward to more time together. However, he’s not conventionally attractive, and he’s self-conscious about it.
He gives me regular compliments about my appearance, but since I know he’s self-conscious about his body, I usually compliment the things he does, the way he acts, or his smart brain. I’ve tried some white lies, but they don’t seem to go well. I’d rather see his face when I open my eyes in the morning than anyone else. What can I do or say to reassure him, especially when he’s showering me with compliments about my (extremely average) body?
A: White lies generally don’t go over well in an intimate relationship, unless one is very good at deceiving one’s partners (which is a skill I don’t recommend you try to cultivate), so I think you can make some real progress if you start there and don’t tell your boyfriend any more white lies. If he’s already self-conscious about his appearance, and you refer to him so readily as “not conventionally attractive,” my guess is that he could tell your heart was not in those white lies. That doesn’t mean that you can’t tell him you’re attracted to him, which it sounds like you are, or that you’d rather see his face than anyone else’s, but you can’t reassure your partner about something dishonestly. Nor should you feel like it’s incumbent on you to shower him with compliments about his appearance simply because he does that to you; when you feel moved to talk to him about how much you love the mere sight of him, you should do so, but not out of any sense of needing to even out your end of the Compliment Scale.
If at some point you want to separately have a conversation about how you can best support him as he deals with body image issues, you can certainly ask (do so tactfully, and back off if he makes it clear he’s not interested in discussing it), but I don’t think you should feel as if it’s your job, now that you’re his girlfriend, to manage his self-esteem. It’s your job to be kind, honest, and loving and to offer support whenever it’s desired, but that’s the extent of it, in my opinion. It’d be one thing if he were so frequently running himself down or saying self-deprecating things around you that it somehow affected your ability to spend time with him, but if he simply deals with periodic bouts of self-doubt because he’s not conventionally attractive, I think you should think of it not in terms of “How can I fix this for him?” but “Is there anything I can do to help?” If the answer is as limited as “Not really,” and the most you can do is knock off the white lying and be there for him in whatever ways you can, then that’s just fine.
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Q. Grief-stricken abroad: The man I was seeing died suddenly last week. I found out through an urgent call from a good friend in the minutes after I landed overseas for a monthlong vacation. I’m grieving in a beautiful country, where I feel so far from the people who knew him. Thankfully, I am with good friends, who are giving me space, but I feel guilty that I wasn’t there to help pack up his apartment or take part in memorials with our mutual friends, and guiltier that I am bringing down this trip for everyone. We had only been dating for two months, but it was intense, and we had known each other for a few years as friends and colleagues in our grad program. He helped me through treatments of a major illness. He was supposed to come join on this vacation.
Now I don’t know whether to come back early for the funeral, or if that would be overstepping. I’ve talked to his mom and we’ve stayed in contact, but she didn’t know me before. I am drowning my grief in bad ways, drinking and smoking more than I would like. I am trying to devote myself to more productive things, drawing him and working on a video compilation of his work for his family, but they are making me feel almost worse, since they aren’t very good yet. I feel like my talent has left and all I have is empty effort. I want to reach out to friends, and I have to a few and to family, but I don’t have the words right now for social media, and most people either don’t know what’s happened or don’t know that we were dating. The posts I see about him mostly make me sad or angry, with people I know he wasn’t close to, especially an ex-girlfriend, milking his sudden death for attention. I don’t want to be this way, and I don’t want to make his passing about me. I’ve just stopped looking at Facebook and Instagram. I want to reach out, but I don’t know how to find the words to memorialize him. I’ve been waiting until I had a drawing that I could share, but I don’t know how long it will take to finish one that’s actually good. If I have to make the choice, do you think I should cut my trip short and go home to the funeral? Do you have resources for dealing with grief?
A: I can’t imagine that it would be overstepping anything for you to go to the funeral of the man you’ve been dating for two months and have known and cared about for years. It would be meaningful for you to be there, and it won’t mean you’re doing anything “for attention”—your grief is real, and your relationship was long-standing, intense, and recently romantic. I think your decision to stop looking at social media right now is a good one, and that being closer to friends and family will help you get some of the support you need. It sounds like you’re in a bit of shock at present, because I can’t imagine you would normally think of yourself as someone on the periphery of this man’s life, or whose presence at his funeral would be suspect. Don’t force yourself to stay on a vacation that you’re not enjoying. People will understand. Fly home, call on your friends for support, attend his funeral, and don’t rush the project you’re working on or beat yourself up for not making something perfect. This is a huge, devastating, sudden shock, and you should be as kind to yourself as possible, and reach out as much as you can.
Q. Re: What constitutes domestic violence?: I had a friend tell me a similar story; her fiancé threw a box of pancake mix at a wall during an argument while cooking breakfast. She laughed it off, but the next time it was a mug aimed closer to her. The next time it was a warm hair dryer right at her face. The next time it was her body being thrown through a glass door. Abusers test the waters methodically.
A: I think it’s helpful to remember that while you don’t know for certain that your partner will escalate, you do know that every time someone is abused for the first time, they’re shocked and bewildered, and that abuse often does begin with someone testing the waters. There’s no reason to force yourself to stick around and see if your partner gets worse, when this isn’t acceptable behavior in any relationship.
Q. Is it ever OK to disclose someone else’s miscarriage?: My husband and I live close to both sets of our in-laws, and we celebrate many holidays, birthdays, and special occasions together with both families. Everyone gets along great. However, at a recent dinner with the families, I think that my mother made a major faux pas. She half-jokingly commented to my sister-in-law that she and my husband’s brother should have a baby soon, so that there’s another child around. I think that’s an inappropriate thing to say in any situation, but to make matters worse, I found out recently that my sister-in-law had a miscarriage some time ago. She may not be able to carry a pregnancy to term.
I’d like to have a talk with my mom to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, but I’ve been hesitant because my sister-in-law was not the one who told me about her miscarriage, and I was asked not to mention it to anyone. Should I tell my mom anyway, or stay quiet and just try to change the topic if she does it again? Is there some way of talking to my mom about this without disclosing something I was asked not to disclose?
A: I don’t think you have a reason to disclose your sister-in-law’s miscarriage without her consent, especially since she doesn’t know that you know about it. If you want to tell your mother not to pressure other people to discuss possible child-rearing plans, even in what she thinks of as a polite or inoffensive way, because it’s a potentially very fraught subject, then you don’t have to say, “By the way, she’s had a miscarriage” as justification. Just say you don’t want her to put anyone in a potentially uncomfortable situation, and that if they wanted to share any information about their reproductive plans with you, then they will, without prompting.
Q. Is cheating the only way to be happy?: I have a wonderful boyfriend, and we’ve been together for five years with plans to marry someday. But he is a bit older than me and our sex life is … inconsistent. We can’t afford the virility meds he would need on a regular basis, and it’s become frustrating for both of us. When we do have sex, it’s amazing, but it only happens once every few months. Recently I have become attracted to a co-worker who I know is attracted to me. Nothing has happened, but I brought this up with my boyfriend and he freaked out. He wants me to be happy but the idea of opening up our relationship and me sleeping with someone else, especially when he wouldn’t/can’t, was too much for him to handle. Now I don’t know what to do. Was it wrong to tell him about my attraction to this other person? Should I pursue this attraction if I know it will make me happy in the short term but ultimately not fix anything in my current relationship? Is cheating the only way for me to be happy? I’ll also point out that I brought up couples counseling, but again this is something we just can’t afford.
A: I don’t think that cheating is the biggest problem you’re facing here—I think it’s the fact that your boyfriend is apparently unwilling or uninterested in having sex with you unless he’s able to get hard. If the medicine and the counseling are both totally out of your budget, then you have options in between “have sex every three months” or “have an open relationship.” Try talking to him about what you’d like from your sex life and whether he’d be interested in meeting you halfway. If he’s totally closed off, then I think you should reconsider whether your plans to marry will actually result in happiness together.
Q. Friend overstays welcome: Recently, a mutual friend of my roommates and I, “Emily,” has been spending a lot of time at our home. My roommate “Jen” invites her. I like Emily, but I am very much an introvert, and it stresses me out to have her around from noon to midnight on the weekends, or to come home from work to unwind and find that Emily’s already there. I worry it seems rude to give Emily a cursory greeting and retire to my own room, since she probably comes over to see both of us. I also want to be sensitive to Emily’s depression, and to the fact that she doesn’t have many friends in the area. I like her, but 12-hour hangout sessions, always at my home, are a lot to deal with. Jen doesn’t seem to mind as much. Is there any way I can politely ask Emily to space out her visits, or am I better off hastily retreating to my bedroom and hoping I don’t hurt any feelings?
A: You can do both, I think! If you ever need time alone in your room to decompress, you can simply say, without explanation or apology, “I’ll talk to you guys later.” You can also talk to Jen about how long you’re comfortable having guests in the house, making it clear that while you like having Emily around, you’d like to have mutually-agreed-upon visiting hours so that you can still maintain some privacy in the house.
Q. Mom takes my chronic illness personally: I’m a 21-year-old who has been suffering from migraines for the last 10 years, and chronic migraines for the last five. Last spring they took a turn for the worse, and I spent months trying to find a way to deal with the latest evolution of nearly unbearable symptoms, on top of attending school full time, working, and being pretty involved on campus. I finally found an excellent neurologist, got some great interventions, and started to come to terms with the necessary lifestyle adjustments of dealing with chronic pain in college. My issue is my mother. Whenever I’m home and tell her that I’m having a bad migraine day or need to lie down for a while, she takes it personally and makes comments about how I always get migraines around her, specifically, and chastises me for having the symptoms and not doing more about it.
I’ve tried calmly explaining to her that I have a chronic illness and that I’m working on finding the best treatment plan with my neurologist, but that I’m still going to have bad days. She tells me regularly that “considering yourself chronically ill is just pessimistic” and undermines my doctor’s medical advice. I try to tell her about the helpful ways my roommates at school support me, but it falls on deaf ears. This is souring an otherwise good relationship I have with my mom. Is there anything I can do to get her to acknowledge the reality of my illness and make her take it less personally?
A: I think having a regular script you can stick to and then going about your ordinary business is the best strategy you can take with her. “Mom, I don’t time my migraines around you, and this isn’t a helpful conversation for me to have. I’m going to go lie down now.” If she tries to give you medical advice or calls you pessimistic, stick with, “Mom, I think it’s better if we don’t discuss my condition and you don’t try to offer me advice. I’ve found a doctor I trust and a plan that’s working well for me. Let’s drop this.” After that, if she tries to bring it up again, just say, “We’ve talked about this, and I’m not going to have this conversation with you. Let’s talk later.”
Q. Re: Compliment conundrum: Tell him what’s true for you. “I love your face” is a good start. What else do you find attractive about him? It could be something unconventional, such as his hands or his lips. Maybe something most people wouldn’t notice at first look, but that you’ve come to appreciate and love. Does he dress well, or get a good haircut? Compliments about these parts of his appearance can work, too. This guy sounds great, and you’re a peach for wanting him to feel good about himself. Good luck!
A: I agree that it’s better to focus on aspects of his appearance you genuinely enjoy, rather than trying to manufacture polite fictions about how you think he might want you to view him. Specific compliments are the best kind, anyhow!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
My boyfriend and I have been together for five years and have lived together for two of those years. We are in our 20s. The other night I was using his computer (mine is away for repairs) to look at some pictures from a recent family trip and had to eject a CD of his. When I reinserted it, the contents were displayed on the screen. I was only a little surprised when the contents turned out to be pornography, as I know that he’s a guy and enjoys it occasionally (although probably more than I would like), and we use it together at times. But when I looked more closely at the titles of the pictures and video clips, I realized many had to do with child pornography. I opened them, thinking they may just be labeled wrong, but they weren’t. Quite a few of them involved young (approximately 6- to 10-years-old) girls. It made me physically ill to think that my boyfriend might be looking at these. I suppose it’s possible a friend gave it to him and he didn’t know what was on it. My dilemma is, how do I ask him about this without making it seem like I was snooping through his stuff? I really do try to be careful that I don’t invade his privacy when I use his computer, as I know that would bother him.
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