Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My new roommate loves serial killers: I’ve been living with my roommate, “Leanne,” for three weeks. I thought she was a hipster who put up pictures of old indie rock stars on her wall. Then my friend came to our dorm and told me the dudes in her pictures were serial killers: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein. I freaked out and asked Leanne to take them down, but she refuses. She won’t explain why she put the pictures up, which also freaks me out.
I hate looking at pictures of these evil people and have been spending nights in my friends’ dorms. I have to wait to transfer rooms until there’s an opening. Leanne and I barely talk now. I’m not someone who enjoys horror films, and I get scared easily. I want to be comfortable in my room, and I’m not sure how to do that. Am I being immature for not getting over this?
A: It is very reasonable and not at all immature to say, “I don’t want pictures of serial killers all over my walls.” By no standard of the maturation process is it reasonable to say, “By such-and-such an age, you must feel extremely comfortable falling asleep under a poster of Ed Gein.” If your roommate isn’t willing to compromise, then I think it’s worth involving an RA or your university’s housing office. She can look at serial killers all she likes, just not on the walls you two have to share.
Q. So, so tired of dating: I’m a 29-year-old lesbian and I just went through another hard breakup. It was a nine-month relationship, and although it was the right thing to do, it sure stings. My relationship before that was seven months, and before that was another nine. I just don’t understand why my relationships can’t stick. I’m really happy with myself; I have a wonderful job, exceptionally amazing friends, a great apartment, wonderful family, and lots of hobbies—I just want a partner to share it with. I’m getting to an age where my friends get paired off and married, and I can’t even seem to get a relationship past a year. I’m aging out of the bar scene, and I really don’t like dating apps. What can I do? I want a partner and a family one day, and I can’t keep getting my heart broken.
A: I wish I had a guaranteed strategy for you that meant if you wanted to be partnered very badly, you could become so without risking another heartbreak, but I don’t. It is possible that you will never find a long-term partner; it’s possible that you will meet someone wonderful and have a terrible breakup three months or three years from now; any number of things may happen to you over the course of your romantic life, and if you want to try to find a lifelong partner, then potential heartbreak comes with the territory.
But since you can’t stand the thought of another breakup right now, don’t force yourself to start looking for your next partner right away. Take some time off and focus on all the great things in your life that you do enjoy rather than trying to rush into another relationship out of a fear that you’re falling behind the rest of your friends. (On a strictly practical level, dating apps are one of the most common ways to meet people nowadays, so I wouldn’t recommend totally ruling them out as a strategy, but consider going to more local events and meetups structured around interests and hobbies of yours, and look to meet women there.)
There’s nothing unusual about being 29 and coming off a string of medium-term relationships; it’s not necessarily a sign that you’re doing something terribly wrong or have unusually bad luck. That’s not to say that your feelings aren’t perfectly understandable, or that your desires and concerns aren’t important, simply that the situation you’ve described sounds a lot like what dating as a 29-year-old looks like.
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Q. MIL hell: My mother-in-law is the one people tell in jokes: She is a narcissistic, neurotic mess who manipulates everyone no matter the cost. My marriage has survived because we live 1,000 miles away and visit once every year or two. My ex–sister-in-law filed for divorce the second time our mother-in-law broke into her house, rearranged everything, and threw out sheets, clothes, and personal belongings because she deemed them “tacky.” No one in my family likes seeing her—our daughters have to be bribed to see “Gran.” A few years ago, she told my preteen that she looked “trashy” for wearing leggings and her older sister that she looked like a “lesbian” for wearing a sweatshirt.
My husband still feels the need to go and care for his parents despite agreeing that his mother is awful and difficult. My husband is up for a promotion that would require a move either closer or farther away from his parents. We are arguing over this. I am not willing to relocate to take care of my in-laws. I have no siblings, so care of my parents falls solely to me, and both our daughters live here. I am willing to pay someone to deal with my in-laws, but dealing with them myself constantly will end my marriage. I love my husband, but 20 years of marriage have proved he has a soft touch toward his mother. You don’t have to drive the road to see the rough terrain. What do I do?
A: I haven’t spent much time there myself, so I can’t make any personal assurances about how helpful you may find it, but Nicole Cliffe sometimes recommends checking out the JUSTNOMIL subreddit to get a sense of how other people have dealt with wildly unreasonable in-laws (and partners who are generally inclined to cave to them). It’s not clear what sort of care your mother-in-law needs at present; my guess is that were she ill, you’d have mentioned it in your letter because she’d be giving you all by-the-minute updates on her condition and making demands on that basis—so the care your husband seems to feel obliged to give her is likely mostly emotional. It’s good, I think, that you have clarity and a firm sense of what’s an uncrossable line for you: You will not move closer to your husband’s in-laws and you will not care for them personally, although you’re willing to contribute money to their eventual care, should that prove necessary. You have more than enough reason to set that as a limit, and it seems clear that this is also in your daughters’ best interests. I think you should stick to it and hope that your husband is willing to join you in setting reasonable boundaries. If he doesn’t, don’t get guilted or coerced into joining him as he continues to enmesh his life with his mother’s dramatic antics. Your mother-in-law’s behavior, and her children’s apparent reluctance to push back against it, has already contributed to the end of one marriage. Hopefully your husband can see that he has the opportunity not to repeat history. If he seems willing to try couples counseling, a few sessions may prove helpful as you figure out what he does and doesn’t owe to his parents, and how the two of you can talk about his feelings of pressure and guilt when it comes to them.
Q. Unfairly written up: My bra accidentally unhooked during a presentation at work. There were 200 people in the audience. I was written up for inappropriate behavior, even though I did not act intentionally. On top of that, I was wearing a business suit with a blouse and a vest, so I didn’t show any skin at all. Do I have any recourse against my employer?
A: If any readers have some useful experience or expertise, I’d welcome more detailed advice, but it seems silly, sexist, and unnecessarily punitive to write someone up for an embarrassing accident that they had no control over. I think it’s very much worth pushing back, and you should also seek legal advice—not as a first step, but to get a sense of what your options are before proceeding.
Q. When does not right now mean never?: I’m a member of a ski group, which accounts for most of my social activity in the fall and winter. There’s a really nice, attractive young woman in that same group who I’ve been interested in for a while. Last year, she made a joke which seemed to indicate that she was single and looking, which I took as a green flag to ask her out. Her response was that she was too busy at the time and had just come out of a long-term relationship, so she wasn’t interested in dating at the moment. On the one hand, I know that some guys react badly (or even violently) to rejection, so she may have been trying to signal disinterest while trying to keep things from turning ugly, and I don’t want to press the issue if that’s the case (although I’d be a little disappointed if she thought of me like that). On the other hand, I’m somewhat aware of what her life is like at the moment, and she does keep herself very busy, so she also may just have meant exactly what she said. With another ski season coming up, and a year and more having passed, would I be out of line to ask again? Or should I accept “No” as the subtextual answer, and if that wasn’t her intent, it’s her prerogative to do the asking, if her circumstances change?
A: My read on your last interaction was that she wanted to generally signal availability but was not specifically interested in going out with you and wanted to offer a slightly generic excuse rather than come out and say, “Yes, I want to go on a date with someone, but not you.” There are lots of reason to soften a “No” that don’t necessarily mean she assumes you’ll instantly turn unreasonable and violent if you hear it, so I don’t think you should waste your time assuming she thinks poorly of you. But given how her initial statement was, “I’m single and looking for a date,” followed immediately by, “I don’t have time to date now, and I’m not actually ready after my last relationship” as soon as you asked her out, I think she was offering you a polite “thanks, but no thanks.” As such, there’s no reason to think she’ll say yes a year later. I think you can safely assume that if that truly was her only reason for turning you down, she’ll let you know when and if things change.
Q. Re: So, so tired of dating: I’m straight and in my 50s, but was going through something very similar when I was in my 20s and 30s. Short relationships that ended painfully, coupled with a real desire to get a partner and start a family. I began to feel like the Little Match Girl, staring in the windows of all the other happy relationships around me. At some point I got into therapy to understand the patterns I was repeating, and also started to focus on my friends and my career. I resumed dating in my mid-30s when I realized that I was not going to meet a partner randomly, and not only did I join some dating services (the ancestor of dating apps), I got busier with activities and groups, and told everyone that I was actively dating. I was introduced to my husband by someone who didn’t know either of us very well—he had been on a blind date with someone I knew slightly through a comedy class. We have been together for 23 years and have a teenager.
A: Thank you so much for this. I don’t think that going to therapy, investing in other areas of one’s life, and spending time investigating one’s own romantic habits and possible blind spots is always a guaranteed way to find a partner, but I do think that it’s very much worth doing, and often improves the relationships one does have.
Q. Questions about Mom’s will: When my father’s parents died, my mom mentioned that her will was set up like theirs: If my siblings or I die before her, our share of anything we would have inherited is divided between that person’s children. Many years later, I am married, but my husband and I have decided kids aren’t likely in our future. It seems unfair that he wouldn’t get anything if I die first, but I also believe it’s my mom’s money and her right to decide what happens to it. Is there a way to bring up the will and ask if she would consider revising it for him to receive my share if I die first, or would that be presumptuous?
A: You can certainly ask your mother if she has any thoughts about the matter and what her preference would be if you were to die before your husband, but I think you should also be prepared to accept it if she says she would feel differently about supporting a grown man financially than she would young grandchildren. Since it seems like you do have a certain degree of acceptance around whatever her decision may be, I think it’s fine to raise the subject and ask what she thinks.
Q. Re: Unfairly written up: Did you stop and rehook your bra in front of everybody, excuse yourself from the room in order to do so, or carry on as if nothing had happened? Two out of three of those scenarios could very well be the reason you were written up.
A: That seems to be the main question in all of these responses—if the letter writer was simply written up for something that can’t be helped, then that’s out of line, but if anything in the write-up had to do with her public response, then that might be grounds for a conversation about how to deal with embarrassing and unexpected clothing mishaps at work.
Q. Tipping: When my girlfriend and I occasionally spend time with two of her friends who are a couple, we usually end up going out to eat. On many of these past occasions I have noticed that this couple will leave fairly small tips, 10 percent or sometimes less. Once, after offering to pay, they left zero tip. (The service was neglectful.) Personally, I almost always tip 20 percent at restaurants as I can afford it, and know from acquaintances how important tips can be to servers. On one occasion when splitting the bill, one of the couple saw the amount I left for tip and remarked they thought it was “a lot.” I don’t know the details of this couple’s financial situation, and I know that in theory there’s no set amount you have to tip, but I can’t help feeling guilty whenever this happens. My girlfriend agrees with me. I thoroughly enjoy spending time with this couple, but secretly worry that after each time we have dinner with them we add another name to a list of establishments we are blacklisted from for poor tipping. Is this actually something worth fretting over, or do I need to let this go and just focus on enjoying our double dates?
A: I’d continue tipping 20 percent, and suggest going to more movies or out for drinks.
Q. Re: So, so tired of dating: Perhaps the real issue is not that her relationships are ending too quickly, but that they are not ending quickly enough. It’s worth considering whether there were indications after a month or so that her last few relationships did not have staying power, and whether she stuck with them because of the overpowering desire to have a lifelong partner. There’s no shame in having short relationships. I remember going through something very similar when I was 29. There was something about turning 30 and not having had a relationship longer than a year that made me feel like something was wrong with me. I went to therapy and did get some good advice, but there’s also something to be said for patience. I did eventually find someone I’ve been with for years and wish I could go back and tell my younger self, “Chill out, already! You’ll get what you want, you just may not get it right this second. Take this time to make yourself into a better partner. It’s worth the work, and it’s worth the wait.”
A: This is a helpful reminder—if a relationship isn’t working out, then ending it at seven, or nine, or however many months is actually a good thing. Simply having a string of relationships that each last several years isn’t necessarily something you have to do in order to be prepared for a lifelong relationship. If those relationships ended because you two were incompatible, you weren’t being treated well, or you realized you wanted something else, then that’s a good outcome, even if it didn’t feel good at the time. And even if you don’t get what you want, the pain of being in a bad relationship is often much worse than the pain of being single.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
Vintage Dear Prudence
Recently my 23-year-old nephew asked if we could talk man to man. He told me he was marrying his college girlfriend. He said that if my wife ever treated her as badly as she has treated his mother and his other aunt, he would not be silent about it as my brothers have been. When I replied with shock, he ran down a list of statements, actions, and other offenses my wife has committed that he has witnessed over the past 15 years. My wife has gossiped to the church leadership about my brothers and sisters-in-law, losing them positions they should have had. She ruined family events with childish demands and outbursts when I was not in the room. He suggested failures in my career could be because of her. He ended by saying his mother and aunt have never once said anything demeaning about my wife in front of him or anyone. He told of a time when he was in high school and a lady from church confronted his mother about a lie my wife had spread that the church lady believed. I have been completely unaware of any of this.
I talked to our pastor, my boss, and my brothers. All have told me stories that made me sick to my stomach, about how she has flirted with them when I am not around, and the horrible things my wife has done to other women. They all have assumed I knew all about this and have been allowing it to continue. After we talked, our pastor agreed to talk to the other leadership and correct the lies that have tainted my sisters-in-law. My sisters-in-law are caring, compassionate, never judge, and put family above all else. I feel like trash having exposed them to 15 years of torture, and for believing for even one second some of the things my wife has said about them. While I am sick to my stomach and worry that my own children may see this behavior and copy it, I am torn about what do to. Our pastor feels that I should address the congregation and ask forgiveness—our whole family attends the same church. He then wants me and my wife to enter counseling to repair our relationship so we can grow and she maybe can change. I want to grab my kids, hit the door, file for divorce, and then begin repairing the relationship with my family. What do you think?
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