Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Getting over my cheating ex: I was with my significant other for 16 years. We have two boys together and had just purchased our first house last fall (in his name, since he had better credit). We were elated! He was getting ready to open a new restaurant this spring. In January, he went out and came home pretty drunk, with scratches on him. Something did not feel right, and I asked him if something had happened. He brushed me off and told me I did not know what I was talking about, and blamed me for being paranoid. He kept disappearing one or two nights a week for the next few months. He said he was stressed because of the opening, so I backed off. We were still having sex until the beginning of April and celebrated our anniversary and my birthday like normal. Then he stopped coming home three to five nights a week, and when he was home he hardly spoke to me or the kids. I begged him to talk to me, and again he said it was work. Then in June, he came to me and said he was not happy and wanted to take a break. After the past few months of his behavior, I agreed. I moved out with our kids on Aug. 5, and he decided on split custody. The next day he texted me to let me know that he had met someone else. I checked his Facebook, which he had updated, and learned that they started dating in January! He is moving her into our house right now! He wants the kids to meet her next week, and he wants her and I to be friends!?
How do I get past this betrayal? He is telling me I have no reason to be upset, and that he doesn’t understand what the problem is. I can’t stand to even speak to him, let alone meet her. There is no way I can be friends with her, is there? How do I explain this to our children? My heart is broken from all the lies he told me over the course of the last eight months, and I just do not know what to do.
A: Your heartbreak and sense of betrayal are entirely warranted, and you are under no obligation to be friends with your ex’s new girlfriend. Your only responsibilities right now are to take care of yourself, to be a good parent to your children, and insofar as your ex is your co-parent, to be civil with him when it comes to child care. That’s it. You say that “he decided on split custody” without going into any detail about what you want; even if you two weren’t married, you should consult a lawyer and look into developing a court-ordered custody agreement that specifically outlines both of your rights and responsibilities. If your ex wants to talk to you about why you shouldn’t be angry, why he hasn’t done anything wrong, or why his new girlfriend is fantastic, then you should politely say, “I’m not available to talk about that,” and hang up the phone. Ask your friends for support. Find a therapist who can help you deal with this profound shock and betrayal. Give yourself time to come to terms with this and allow yourself to experience anger.
Q. Roommate taking all my food: I share a house with four people. I noticed that a lot of my food has gone missing. We’re all pretty chill, willing to share, and none of us label anything. At first I thought all my roommates were taking my food, which I would have been OK with. The rate at which it was disappearing seemed reasonable if that were the case. But I recently learned that one solitary roommate is the culprit. He never buys his own groceries and never contributes anything except the occasional box of stale pastries.
I had once made an offhand remark about how I’m down to share my food. I realize now this was a mistake. He’s been eating food that I cooked, made with expensive ingredients that I bought, and when I say, “Are you eating that?” he goes, “Yeah, do you want some?” I made a point to clarify that my cooked food is off limits, so now he just uses my ingredients before I get a chance to cook them! He has a job and seems to have money to burn in other areas of life. I feel bad backpedaling on my offer. What’s a nice way of saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize you, specifically, were eating so much food, and now I’m pissed off and don’t want to share anymore?” Or should I just let it go? I don’t want to be petty and bitchy or call attention to anyone’s eating habits. I’m also worried I’m making a big deal out of this because I personally find him annoying.
A: “Hey, I know I said I was happy to share food before, but I’ve realized that my grocery bills are getting really high, and I can’t afford to keep doing that. Thanks for understanding. I’ll try to keep most of my food in the same corner so it’s easy to see what’s not communal.”
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Q. Wanting more: My husband and I have an amazing 2-year-old child. I am starting to want a second child, but my husband is clear that he is happy with one and doesn’t want another. His reasons are completely valid, and I agree with everything he’s saying: Financially and logistically another child would be challenging for us, the second child could disrupt our happy triad, environmentally one child is enough, the world is terrifying so why bring another child into it, etc. But emotionally, I want to have a second child. I want my child to have a sibling. When I bring it up, my husband is very clear he’s happy as is. I agree with his reasons, but I can’t help what I feel and I’m worried I will end up resenting him later on.
A: You may end up resenting him later on! It would be worse, I think, if you pressured him into having a second child he didn’t want, and he ended up resenting both you and the child later on. It’s a difficult disagreement. Generally speaking, I’m of the opinion that the decision to have a child should be enthusiastic and unanimous. That doesn’t mean your job is to swallow your feelings and force yourself to agree with your husband. You two should continue to have difficult but respectful conversations about what you long for, what you’re afraid of, and ways in which you feel stymied or shut down, but if your husband never changes his mind, then I think you should respect his decision and do your best to come to terms with it.
Q. Emotional epiphany: I have been married for 22 years to a boisterous man. When he is happy, he is a laugh riot. When he is angry or upset, watch out. Our kid is off to college. When our kid was little, it was kind of, “Go play in your room, Daddy is mad.” I know how that sounds—at least I do now. Today, I had a bit of an epiphany. My husband gave me a list of errands to run, even though I was working and he had the day off. I was upset but left without expressing my anger. Suddenly one light bulb went off, then another. First, I gave in because I know that I will not “win” any argument. Second, my husband does not care about my feelings. They are a painful inconvenience to him.
Prudie, can a bully change? I am horrified, because I don’t think so. I have gone the counseling route. When I “use my words” or “draw boundaries,” I am just steamrolled.
A: People who have bullied may be capable of change. A man who has spent the last 22 years bullying his wife and children, who does not care about the feelings of others, who has dismissed attempts at counseling, boundaries, and verbal communications, is not going to change. I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with him for so long, and for the ways his anger frightened and cowed his child into hiding from him. I think you’ve tried a number of strategies for many years and nothing has worked. I think it’s unlikely anything is going to work. I think you should leave him, and enjoy the peace, quiet, and sense of relief that one can only experience in a home without the fear of waiting for someone else to explode.
Q. Parenting your parents?: My parents have been married around 40 years, but they don’t seem to like or respect each other. Our family is close—my siblings and our partners are all in our late 20s and early 30s, and we enjoy a weekly family dinner and spend Christmases and most long weekends together. The relationship between our parents is deteriorating more quickly since they started marriage counseling. It has given them an outlet to air grievances, but no tools to resolve issues or move forward. Throughout this, us kids have had to listen to a lot of complaining about how both are victimized by the other’s inadequacy and sometimes manage very upset parents. We cannot be their friends or parent them, or make decisions for them. While we don’t want to break up the family connection we have, it is currently definitely not working, and everyone feels tense and upset. What can the kids do here?
A: Cut back on the weekly dinners and long weekends together. Spend more time with one another as siblings without including your parents. Let them know it’s entirely because they’re not able to be civil in front of you, and that it sucks all of the air out of the room. If they try to make you feel guilty for not wanting to be a regular audience for their rehearsals of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, respectfully decline.
Q. Feeling like a dirty little secret: I have been with my partner for a year, and known him well for years. We had both given up on finding a meaningful romantic connection, then were delighted to find that being with each other “just works.” We’ve set a plan for marriage and children and recently bought a home together. I am happy, in love, and content—except for this one issue.
Previously, my partner dated someone from his hometown for six years. They moved to our town together and broke up two years ago. He still talks to her occasionally and remains at least cordial with most of his exes. When we started dating, he was working on a construction project for her as she prepared to sell her house. As our relationship got more serious, I told him I was uncomfortable with him spending so much time at her house. He understood and went back to the occasional “hello” on social media. What upsets me is that he still refuses to tell her about our relationship. When we went official on social media, he set his privacy settings so that she and her family wouldn’t see our relationship status. I have asked him to just tell her, and explained that it is hurtful and upsetting. He has assured me that there is no danger of infidelity. He says that she is overly emotional—apparently they had a very rocky relationship, and he felt more like a babysitter than a partner. He says that she will react badly if he tells her, and since she plans to move back home soon, that we should just let it go.
I am still hurt by this, and I feel that he’s valuing her feelings over mine. I understand how this sounds, especially given the length of our relationship and how quickly we’ve moved. I honestly don’t believe he has any romantic or sexual attachment to this ex. I think he’s just in the habit of taking the path of least resistance with her. How do I explain this to him?
A: I’m always skeptical when someone says, “I can’t tell my ex we’re together, my ex is totally irrational and too emotional.” If he’s willing to buy a home with you and talk about marriage and children, is his plan to just hide that from her for the rest of her life? Even if she moves away, what if a mutual friend accidentally discloses that he’s gotten married? What’s his plan then? If she’s “too emotional” to know that he has a new girlfriend, why isn’t she “too emotional” to work together closely on a construction project? Your request is eminently reasonable, and I’m not sure you should take at face value his assurance that there’s no way he has ever, or would ever, cheat on you with her. Don’t let this go unchallenged or unquestioned.
Q. Re: Wanting more: I feel like I could have written this from the exact opposite perspective. We have an amazing 3-year-old. I came into this marriage wanting multiple kids, and he barely wanted one. We have completely changed sides. I fear my husband will resent me one day about this choice. I don’t necessarily have any advice, other than to keep talking honestly to each other about desires, fears, and resentments. This has made all the difference for us. Get a counselor to help if need be. Emotional stuff can be hard to discuss fairly and honestly for all parties.
A: It’s hard, I think, when the best answer one can give is, “I’m not sure what the outcome will be, and can’t make any predictions, but you two should keep talking about this, even if you don’t come to an immediate resolution.” But this is a big issue, and even if there’s not an outcome where both parties feel like they got everything they wanted, I think it will go a long way for the letter writer to feel like her husband knows, understands, and cares about where she’s coming from.
Q. Is it OK to not give therapy a chance?: After many years of unhappiness, a lot of soul searching, and one final explosive incident, I decided to leave my marriage. I informed my husband of my decision, and he was predictably distraught, angry, and hurt. He is begging me to do couples counseling. We have done it before, and left with some good tools, but it did not make me feel any better about my marriage. He feels completely blindsided and can’t understand how I got here. I agreed to go to counseling, but I don’t have any intention of using it to try and save the marriage. For me, it’s an opportunity for him to feel his voice and feelings have been heard, and an opportunity for me to try to make him understand where I’m coming from, which I expect is an exercise in futility. We have three children and have been married for over a decade. Am I wrong to not want to give this a chance?
A: I think you are giving this a chance, if you’re willing to go to couples counseling despite having what sound like fairly realistic expectations about the outcome. If all that couples counseling does for you is strengthen your resolve and make communication over divorce and custody easier, then you’ve had a successful experience with couples counseling. You don’t need your husband to think your reasons for leaving him are good in order to justify walking away from a marriage you’ve been unhappy in for years.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
“I recently moved to a neighborhood where it’s relatively common for people to allow their dogs to roam the neighborhood freely—a practice that seems outrageous to me. There is one dog in particular that keeps showing up in my yard. Though he is very sweet, he is not neutered, does not have a collar or microchip, and was filthy and covered in fleas when I found him. He seems to be well-fed and otherwise healthy. I took the dog in, put up a few lost dog signs, and learned from another concerned neighbor who the owners are. He said they have ignored his repeated requests to keep their dog on a leash, and he witnessed several near-accidents as cars swerved to avoid the dog. Should I give this dog to a good home? My gut says this is the right thing to do, but I’m worried that I’m stealing a dog from a family. On the other hand, if I find this dog dead in the street in two weeks I will feel responsible.”
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.