Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Fake vacation: My adult niece and nephew took my teenage daughter out of state to get an abortion. They told me it was a vacation, so I allowed it, but I wouldn’t have had I known its true purpose. My sister is pro-life, and might well disown her children if she knew about this. Telling her would be a good way to punish them, but I do love my daughter and don’t want her to feel responsible for whatever happens. Should I tell my sister or not?
A: No. As you consider what to do next, reality-test your ideas by saying, “Would this action demonstrate my love for my daughter, or a desire to punish my niece and nephew? Which feeling do I want to influence my actions? How can I support and care for my daughter right now?”
Q. Husband stays up all night: My husband and I have a largely excellent partnership, but as with every couple, there are some friction zones. One that has been growing of late has to do with his sleep habits. I’m usually in bed by 10. I need lots of sleep in order to not be a terrible person and, due to my job, often have to be up early for conference calls to other time zones. I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety, so I really need my sleep. My husband, on the other hand, is a night owl and a graduate student. He doesn’t need to be at school until 10 or 11 a.m. most days, and he likes to stay up until dawn studying or playing video games. He often comes to bed at 4 or 5 a.m., disrupting my sleep. I generally can’t go back to sleep after that.
I’ve talked to him about this many times. I have asked him to try to come to bed by midnight, or if he’s working on a major school project, by 2 a.m. at the latest. He promises to try, but I don’t see any progress being made. He claims he can’t get to sleep if he comes to bed too early. I feel like midnight to 2 a.m. is not early. I don’t mind his video game hobby, as he is good about fulfilling his responsibilities and making time for me in other areas, but I want him to stop staying up all night during the week so that my sleep is less disrupted. I also wish he would not sleep until noon on weekends, because I would like us to be able to go out and do things together. I’ve brought this up to him so many times I don’t know how I can keep doing so without nagging him. Am I justified in expecting him to adjust his sleep schedule to better accommodate mine?
A: Your request has been reasonable. It would be one thing if your husband had said, “Going to bed at midnight doesn’t work for my sleep schedule; let’s talk about our other options, including sleeping separately.” But to say “Sure, I’ll try,” and then keep on doing exactly what he was doing before—that’s inconsiderate and ineffective. Whatever conversation you two have next about your sleep schedules, it needs to take into account the fact that your husband is regularly going to go to bed around 4 or 5 a.m., regardless of what he says he’s going to do.
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Q. Cold feet?: I got engaged to my boyfriend of four years this summer. It was fun floating around in engagement land for a few weeks, but since then, I’ve turned into a big emotional anxious ball. The issue I keep rolling around in my mind is: We have had a happy and kind relationship, but I’ve had to seek intellectual and emotional discussions elsewhere. We have never had one of those “stayed up all night talking” types of conversations. He isn’t the kind to be curious or ask questions—and that is pretty much how I operate! Now that we’re about to take this big step, I’m frightened it’s something I will seriously mourn not having in my life with my partner. He is a good, dependable guy, and we’ve built a lot together, including great trust and mutual care. But now I’m freaked. What do I do?
A: Pay attention to these anxieties and take them seriously. It’s one thing not to have a “stay-up-all-night-talking” sort of conversation with your partner, but if you think of him as fundamentally incurious, and if he doesn’t ask questions about anything, that’s a pretty serious incompatibility. If he’s not one for long-winded intellectual debates, you may be happy to seek that sort of stimulation elsewhere, but you say you’ve had to do the same for “emotional” conversations. Is he ever available to talk about your feelings in a deeper sense than, “Sorry to hear that, babe”? I think you may seriously mourn not having this kind of relationship. That doesn’t mean dismissing your partner as stupid and thinking of yourself as too good for him, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve been trying to do that. If your primary emotional response to getting engaged has been “Oh, no,” then you need to have some difficult conversations now, rather than after the wedding.
Q. Spousal/parental rage: My husband of over a decade has a history of anxiety problems that are currently untreated. We have a history of conflict in our marriage, and we also have two small kids. My husband ends up raging at me in front of our kids a lot. He calls me names and curses at me. It’s ugly. He doesn’t curse at the kids, but he yells at them a lot.
I know that one answer to this problem is a divorce, but I worry about my kids. They aren’t being abused in a way that courts will recognize, so he’s going to get shared custody. I will also have no ability to protect them from him if we divorce. As it is, I can intervene if he’s directing his anger at them, and I try to help them process what they are seeing. I know this is inadequate. I’m writing to ask for strategies to try to address this within the context of the marriage. When I ask him to stop, he says the problem is my behavior, which he says undermines him. He’s correct insofar as I don’t defer to him—if I feel I need to ask him to do things or to change his conduct, I do so. I don’t want to walk on eggshells with my spouse, and I want to maintain my right to speak up whenever I want. Can you offer any ideas?
A: Consult a divorce lawyer—I’m not sure if your husband is the one who’s given you the idea that verbally abusing your spouse and children is something a judge can’t or won’t take into account when determining custody, but you should seek out more expert advice. It can be difficult to demonstrate nonphysical abuse in court, and courts, of course, are not perfect arbiters of justice. But that doesn’t mean you don’t stand a chance and should resign yourself to staying with a man who’s terrorizing you and your children on a daily basis. You seem to believe that the best thing you can do for your children is to stay married to your abuser so that you can monitor and minimize the effects his abuse has on them, but that’s putting a terrible burden on your own shoulders. Talk to a lawyer about how you could best document and record your husband’s abusive tirades, the effect it has on your children, and how to make the strongest case possible for sole custody.
Q. How do I address the “family care gap” in my work history?: I’m entering the job market after completing a Ph.D. program that I extended to five years. Interviewers who ask me to explain this extension indicate that it reflects negatively on my productivity and, thus, my future professional promise. The truth is I supported my spouse during an extended illness: He is a recovering alcoholic, two years sober. We married and started our family early (a surprise pregnancy). The stress was overwhelming. I supported us by taking part-time jobs, and we both attended therapy (thankfully covered by my university-sponsored insurance). Now my husband is settled in a highly respected profession. We are deeply committed, very much in love, and proud of our personal accomplishments. But this is a private matter.
How do I address my “gap” in interviews appropriately? More than one senior colleague confessed that they assumed I was simply on the “mommy track,” pursuing a “hobby Ph.D.” while married to a successful man in a lucrative field.
A: I’m sorry to hear that your senior colleagues have been so openly dismissive of women who have had to take time off to care for their children. It will help, I think, to prepare a script about your five-year gap that avoids unnecessary detail and focuses primarily on your readiness to re-enter the workforce, but if you’re comfortable, you might consider saying something like, “I needed to take time off when my child was born, then become a full-time caretaker for several years when a member of my family fell ill. During that time, I took several part-time jobs and did everything I could to prepare myself to return to full-time work.” I’d love to hear from other readers who have had to address a résumé gap, and what’s worked for them.
Q. Neglected dog?: My apartment building is in a U shape, meaning that my apartment directly faces my neighbor’s on the other side of the building. I can easily see inside it. A new person recently moved in, and she has a dog. A few times now, I have seen her leave the apartment on a Saturday night and the next morning, she still is not there, but her dog is lying on the bed with his head on his paws looking across at me. It seems like the dog is being left alone overnight. I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it’s not great either. I know your answer will likely be that I should stay out of it and maybe see if any other red flags are raised, but is there anything I can do? Chat with the neighbor and see if she wants someone to come over and let her dog out?
A: I think chatting with her is a fine idea, especially if you keep things light and offer your services in the spirit of neighborliness. Introduce yourself, chat for a few minutes, then say, “Feel free to say no, but my apartment is right across the way and I’ve noticed your dog looking across to my window; if you ever need someone to let him out overnight, I’d be happy to help.” If she seems responsive, great! If not, you’ll at least know that you offered in a friendly and nonjudgmental way.
Q. Re: Husband stays up all night: There’s no rule that says married people have to sleep in the same bed, or in the same room. Do you have a spare room where your husband could sleep on nights when he stays up gaming? Or could he sleep on the couch? Would the two of you be open to that? If he refuses to come to bed early and refuses to sleep elsewhere, then that’s a real problem.
A: Yeah, I think that’s the real problem to look out for. My hope is that he can have this conversation, acknowledge that his version of “trying” looks exactly the same as “not trying,” and agree to find a compromise that actually works. My fear is that he’ll try to deflect and delay, that he’ll refuse to acknowledge reality and promise to “really try” this time, or that he’ll put the letter writer in an impossible situation by saying, “No, we can’t sleep separately because that would mean something’s not normal in our relationship,” by which he means that it is somehow “normal” for his partner to not sleep.
Q. Cherry-picking vacation buddies: I’m a fan of a sport that doesn’t have many female fans, let alone gay ones like myself. My childhood BFF and I took a trip out of state together last year to see the big game, and that’s where we met “Becky” and “Donna,” a couple who had also traveled for the event. We got along wonderfully, and the four of us have since gone to games together as often as distance will allow.
Here’s my dilemma. I’m thinking of taking a road trip next summer, just for fun, and I want to invite Becky and Donna with me. I love my BFF, I really do, but I think we’re better as long-distance friends. I sleep in, she’s an early riser; I plan, she’s spontaneous. We’re at each other’s throats by Day 3 of cohabitation. Also, she can say thoughtless things sometimes, insulting how I look, etc. I know she doesn’t mean it badly, but without the buffer of distance, our interactions get increasingly tense. With Becky and Donna, it’s easy to be myself and we mesh perfectly; I would love to be stuck in a smelly van with them for weeks. I worry BFF would be incredibly hurt by this, since she sees us as a dynamic foursome. They live as far from me as my BFF does, so I couldn’t pass it off as convenience. How do I ask them to join me but leave out my BFF? And how do I tell my BFF, who I rarely get to see in person, that I love her, but don’t want to spend that time with her?
A: I know you’re worried that your BFF will be hurt by your decision, but it sounds like right now your friendship is based on the premise that it’s sort of OK for her to hurt you, because saying thoughtless things is apparently an unchangeable part of her personality. I think you should invite Becky and Donna on your road trip without a moment’s hesitation. Just because you met them while on a trip with your BFF does not mean you signed a contract promising only to hang out together as a foursome in perpetuity. Have you ever talked to your BFF about the disparities in your travel preferences or the fact that she regularly says things that hurt you, including unkind remarks about your physical appearance? If not, I think you should consider it, even if it’s uncoupled from telling her about taking a vacation with Becky and Donna. You are not doing something wrong by wanting to travel with other friends and so do not need to apologize for it. If your BFF is unable to listen to you talk about how her remarks hurt you, then it may be time to reconsider the friendship.
Q. Drama club drama: For the second year in a row, my mother, who disowned me for being a lesbian, is directing the fall play at the public high school that I attended. (She has no qualifying credentials, but that is neither here nor there, I guess). During high school, I was close to the teacher who ran the drama club and who has now hired my mother. This teacher was the first adult I spoke to when I was kicked out, and she even read the emails my parents wrote to me telling me not to contact them again. Obviously, this is a deep, personal betrayal, but I’m also really worried about the effect my mom will have on these kids. Should I talk to this teacher about it?
A: I think it’s worth speaking to this teacher, especially since you were close to her, and she has direct knowledge of how homophobic your mother is. It also matters that she was responsible for hiring your mother. It’s not like the decision was made over her head, or that your mother was the only candidate qualified to monitor a bunch of teenagers setting Shakespeare in 1930s Chicago. Even if she does not have the power to remove your mother from the position, someone should be making sure that your mother does not use this job to bully or demean gay students. It may help to review what you want to say with a friend before contacting your teacher, and you should stress that your primary concern is for the emotional well-being of the students.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! See you next week.
My boyfriend and I have been together for five years and started living together six months ago. He is amazing and I know that I want to spend the rest of my life with him. While shopping, I found the absolute perfect ring for him and have thought about proposing to him. I brought this up to my best friends thinking they would be excited and instead they told me not to. They said I would be “taking away his moment.” He’s not the type of guy to care about the woman proposing but now it has me rethinking things. Do I just continue to wait around for him to propose, or do I plan something nice and go along with my plans of proposing to him? Read what Prudie had to say.
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.