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. Tale of two weddings: My friend “June” and I have been close since college. She is a wonderful, kind, generous person. In our 20s, we both made bad financial decisions, which meant we both racked up considerable credit card debt. In the past few years, I have started to get serious about getting out of debt permanently by the time I am 40. I have made some significant headway, and I am eager to continue my success. In November, we both got engaged to wonderful people—yay! For a variety of reasons including financial, I had initially planned to elope and a month later have a casual dinner party at my house to celebrate. My fiancé has since gotten laid off, and as a result, we decided to cancel the dinner party. In contrast, June is having an extravagant, large wedding. I am in the wedding and spending thousands of dollars—more than on my own wedding! I am getting increasingly stressed about the cost of her wedding as I am now the sole provider for my family. I also just learned that she is planning on filing for bankruptcy, even while she keeps badgering me to be romantic and have the wedding of my dreams. All of her pressure is really stressing me out.
I have a few questions. First, do I have to get her a present on top of my other wedding obligations (expensive bridesmaid gowns, shoes, makeup, bachelorette weekends, and wedding weekend)? Second, how do I get her to stop pressuring me about my simple elopement? I am getting tired of being called frugal and sounding like there is no romance in my wedding/marriage. Third, is there any way I can encourage her in making better financial decisions? I don’t think anyone in her life tells her to do anything that doesn’t make her happy, even if that means adding to her considerable debt. And while I am no Warren Buffett, I am really worried about her.
A: Your first two goals are definitely achievable. There are those who think that if one attends a wedding, especially as a member of the bridal party, that it’s absolutely necessary to also purchase a gift from the registry; luckily for you, I am not one of those people. This is someone you’re profoundly close with and who knows you’ve had troubles with money—simply say, “I’m so excited to get to celebrate with you for multiple weekends. Between the travel, the clothes, the lodgings, and the makeup and hairstyling, I can’t afford to also buy a gift off the registry, but I’m so glad I’ll be able to be there.” When it comes to your own wedding, just let her know you’re not interested in scaling up: “Let’s stop talking about this, please. I’ve made a decision that makes the most sense for me, and I’m glad our elopement fits our budget and won’t put me further into debt. I don’t want you to pressure me to spend more than I can afford, so please stop.” My guess is that these two conversations will provide your friend with plenty to think about, and that you won’t meet with much success if you try to add, “And by the way, I think you should reconsider your approach to spending and debt.”
Q. Is this abuse or just lack of sleep?: My partner and I recently moved in together. He works a job from 6–2:30 p.m. and I work from 9–8 p.m. I am the primary breadwinner. He refuses to do laundry or clean, so I am often up very late doing household tasks. He wakes at 4:15 a.m. because he has two cats who he has trained to cry for food at that time. After many attempts to convince him to try to get them to eat later, I have given up. He also refuses to be quiet and gets angry when I suggest we sleep in different rooms. So I have decided to just get up with him. I cannot, however, go to sleep with him because I often don’t get home until after he’s gone to bed. (I am super quiet and try not to disturb him.) He also snores like a hacksaw, so even when I do sleep I am awakened every hour. It is starting to affect my work, but I don’t complain and try to make the best of it. He does complain, all the time, about how he does not get enough sleep and is so tired. He’s getting nine hours, and I am lucky to get a good four.
This morning one of the cats woke up about an hour early. He is able to block out the meows, but I am not. So I was awakened at 3:15 a.m. after just going to bed at 12:00 a.m. I asked him, nicely, to please get up and feed the cat. He did nothing, and it continued for another 30 minutes. I got mad and said sternly, “Can you please get up and feed the cat?” He jumped out of bed and threw a pillow at my face really hard. It hit me in the corner of my eye, and it is now red and puffy. I said “You hit me with the pillow,” and he said “No, I did not.” He then proceeded to stomp around the condo and slam doors, so I could no longer sleep. He complained about being woken up before he needed to be. I said, “That happens to me every day. Now you know how I feel.” I don’t know if he meant to hit me or what the issue is. In three years he has never been violent, but he does throw adult temper tantrums, to the point it’s almost laughable, a few times a year. Am I in denial? How much more accommodating can I be? I can support us both on my salary, but if I lose my job, we will be in trouble.
A: I think your partner is rude, thoughtless, selfish, entitled, ungrateful, unnecessarily dramatic, a lousy roommate, terrible at managing his anger, and I don’t think you should live with him for another week. I cannot imagine how you could possibly be more accommodating—you’ve already sacrificed your sleep, support him financially, do his laundry, clean up after him, deal with his periodic tantrums, and feed his cats. And he resents you for it.
He threw the pillow at your face on purpose. He meant to hit you. He wanted to make sure you never asked him to feed his cats again, and he made that clear by throwing the pillow at your face and slamming doors so you couldn’t go back to sleep. Please talk to some of your friends or trusted family members about the kind of behavior you have to deal with in your relationship, and ask for help and support while you leave him. Don’t waste another minute of your time and energy on this man—he’s using you.
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Q. Supermom: My mother is extraordinary. She had me at 14; my biological father and his parents bailed before I was born. My abusive grandmother raised me until she took her drunk aggressions out on me instead of my mother. At 20, with no money and a high school education, my mother packed up our bags and drove as far as her tank of gas allowed. For as long as I can remember, she had bruises on her arms where my grandmother had hit her; she left the moment her mother hit me. To cut a long story short: We were homeless, we struggled, and by the grace of God we thrived. I am 24 and a college graduate. My mom is married to an amazing man who adopted me when I was a sullen teenager. They are expecting their first biological child.
The problem is that I am so jealous it hurts. My mother is radiant. My stepfather is beside himself with joy. The pair of them act like newlyweds and have adorable banter about what to paint the nursery. I want to be happy. I should be happy. Instead I feel like an emotionally disturbed toddler. I hate this. It is insidious. I keep swallowing nasty thoughts, like “Oh, you wanted this baby” and “I never got this.” I can’t breathe a word of this to anyone. I can’t hurt my mother and stepfather because of my emotional malfunction. They deserve to be happy, and I am a grown adult. Why can’t I stop feeling this way? My mother was more mature as a teenager than I am as an adult with a college degree and real job. I need to be there for my parents and new sibling, but it feels like I will vomit up poison any day. Help me.
A: I don’t think there’s anything surprising or unusual about your response. It’s clear that you adore your mother and want her to be happy. It’s also clear that you’re aware your response is not a rational one, and it’s not one that you want to drive your behavior in the future. It makes a great deal of sense that after a profoundly traumatic childhood, you would feel anger, resentment, and insecurity at the prospect of your mother “starting over” with a new family—even as you’re also happy for her.
If you can afford it, please see a therapist over your feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. If you can’t, at least confide in a trusted friend or a journal so that you don’t feel like you’re carrying around a terrible secret. You can also say to your mother, without going into detail about the nature of some of your thoughts, that while you’re thrilled for her, you also feel a pang at the thought of having a sibling who gets to have the secure, safe childhood that you didn’t, that while you know neither of you are directly responsible for the upheaval you experienced, you’re having a little trouble adjusting, and may occasionally need to take a step back to process some of those feelings. Your mother sounds like a remarkable woman, but that doesn’t mean it’s your obligation to always feel perfectly positive and grateful toward her. You are allowed to feel resentful and frustrated, and you are allowed to find a safe outlet for those feelings.
Q. Are sisters automatically bridesmaids?: I have an older brother and a younger sister. I adore my brother and we have a very close relationship. My sister and I have only ever tentatively gotten along, for short periods of time. I just got engaged, and my fiancé and I are talking about wedding parties. My brother will undoubtedly be included—but do I have to include my sister? Should I just swallow my resentment for her and not cause a wave? Or is there a kind way to say that I want to invite her to attend, but I just don’t want her by my side on the big day. I know it’s selfish but we really don’t get along.
A: There is no Bridal Party Central Bureau that is going to show up and collect you on your wedding day if you fail to include your sister as a bridesmaid. It may be somewhat noticeable, and it’s possible that she will be offended. But it’s also possible that she’ll experience the same sense of relief you do when you say, “We’d love for you to attend” and fail to tack on “and join the bridal party” afterward.
Q. Moving on?: I own a house where I have lived happily with two steady friends over the years. My girlfriend is pregnant and moving in with us. The house is cut up so that my roommates have their own private areas. Both of them are happy about the pregnancy and willing to work with me about the new reality (carving off some common areas, etc.). My problem is my girlfriend’s family, who feel the need to press their opinion but not their wallets.
They say my straight roommates need to go, because it is “unnatural” to continue living with non blood-related people. The crux of their argument is that all unrelated males should be considered pedophiles and that all unrelated females should be considered sluts. My friends help me pay for my house and repair things at cost. I trust them and love them. I can count on them in an emergency (which is more than my girlfriend’s family has ever done). My girlfriend is having a hard time dealing with everything. I want to be a good father and partner, but all the stress in our life comes straight from my girlfriend’s family. How do I deal with this?
A: Those are some wildly intense statements for your girlfriend’s relatives to be throwing around! If they’re saying any of these things directly to you, politely but firmly shut them down: “I love and trust [X], consider them a part of my extended family, and don’t want to hear any speculations about their character. Please stop.” If they’re saying them to your girlfriend, ask her how you can support her as she limits her interactions with them. If they try to say these things under your roof, tell them to leave.
Q. How can I get more comfortable with conflict?: I was fortunate to grow up in a mostly conflict-free home and am an easygoing person. I’ve learned over the years how to address conflict in the workplace, but I don’t have much in my personal life. My mother-in-law, however, loves conflict—starting it, encouraging it, nurturing it. I’ve managed to avoid it for the most part, but occasionally, like when she directly attacks me, or calls my husband names in front of my children, I have needed to address it. I’m almost always pleased with how I handle it, keeping a cool head, never shouting, using “I” statements, etc. But every time it happens, I get an adrenaline spike that lasts all day and takes me into panic-attack mode. My husband, likely from a lifetime of adjusting, is able to brush it off and go about his day. Is there anything I can do to be as cool as him?
A: I don’t know that your husband’s approach is necessarily better than yours! Being able to maintain a sense of equanimity is an admirable quality, of course, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve had any trouble staying cool and collected when you’ve had to stop your mother-in-law from cursing your husband out. What you’re describing isn’t conflict so much as sudden torrents of verbal abuse. The fact that your husband is able to carry on with his day likely comes from the fact that, because he grew up with this sort of acting out, he thinks of it as normal. But it’s not normal, and it makes sense that you would have an intense response to your mother-in-law’s fairly intense behavior. Frankly, I think the better option is to seriously limit the amount of time you spend with your mother-in-law if she reliably flies off the handle, so that your children don’t grow up thinking it’s normal for their grandmother to suddenly start calling them or their parents’ names.
Q. Should I come out to my questioning big sister?: I have known that I am bisexual since I was 16 (I am now 21) but have not come out to members of my family, who have all, including my sister, casually made extremely biphobic comments about other people. I had more or less made peace with this, thanks to the support system of friends I have. However, something happened last night. My big sister called me in a panic and expressed that she thinks she might be attracted to women. This is clearly causing her a lot of distress. We’re very close, and I’m trying to help her as much as I can. I know I could probably help her more if I came out to her, but I’m petrified that she’ll revert to judgment or tell my parents (she is not good at keeping secrets). What should I do?
A: I think you should find ways to be supportive of your sister’s questioning process that don’t involve coming out to her—unless and until you’re willing to take the risk that she will eventually tell the other members of your family. If she’s not historically good at keeping secrets, I think odds are good that sooner or later she’ll let it slip to your parents, so you should wait until you’re ready to come out to them, too. Focus on being supportive to her in the moment, helping her unlearn some of her own internalized biphobia, and letting her know that she won’t get the same kind of judgment from you that she’s often turned on the rest of the world.
Q. Re: Tale of two weddings: I was in the same predicament as the letter writer, and I had to kindly tell my recently married and penniless friend something similar when my husband and I chose a courthouse wedding. I’d say something along the lines of, “While I do appreciate your concern about the romantic aspect of my wedding, a wedding is one day and I find very little romance in racking up debt for one day of my life.”
A: That’s a neat way of addressing both the second and third goals at once—thank you!
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