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, chatters! Let’s do this.
Q. Ending the engagement: My first husband died when our sons were babies, and for 20 years I carried his name, raised our children, and watched our grandchildren be born. In my late 40s, I found myself in love and engaged. But then my soon-to-be mother-in-law brought up the fact I wasn’t planning on changing my name. It hadn’t been a factor until then—I have had my late husband’s name longer than my maiden one; it is my name, personally and professionally. She told my fiancé and me that it was “disrespectful” that I wasn’t planning on changing my name and I was “still clinging to a dead man.” Worst, my fiancé started bring up his mother’s rhetoric when he had been fine before.
We are not having children—he doesn’t even want children—so why does my last name matter so much to him? He repeated his mother’s lie that the only reason why I wouldn’t change my name was that I was still pining for my dead husband. I challenged him then that we both could change our names to my maiden one if it meant so much to have a “clean slate.” He refused to.
This feels like such a silly issue but I am ready to end my engagement over it. I am not changing my name because my mother-in-law has a problem with it! Am I being too stubborn or not stubborn enough? Why is this an issue at all?
A: This is an issue because your mother-in-law is being unreasonable and demanding and your fiancé isn’t listening to you. I can certainly understand why it’s making you re-evaluate the idea of marrying this man. He’s demanding you erase a significant tie because it makes him feel threatened that you would still care about your deceased husband. Worse, he’s unwilling to consider an easy compromise because it would involve him changing his name, when he clearly thinks that’s the woman’s job.
Tell him that this name is an important part of your life’s story; that you’re not interested in changing it; that if he feels threatened by your first husband, then that’s the result of his insecurities and not because you’ve done anything wrong; that what he’s asking for is both unkind and unreasonable (and that it’s been unnecessary to involve his mother in it from the start). If he’s willing to apologize and let it drop, you might proceed with caution, but if it were me, I’d take this as an early sign of things to come, move on, and count my blessings.
Q. Frozen out of inheritance: My mother died last month of metastatic lung cancer. Due to a hoarding situation, she stayed with her best friend, myself, and her sister on a rotating basis. When my mother finally got around to making a will, she was staying with her sister and had brain cancer; this resulted in her sister getting power of attorney, becoming executrix, and inheriting 42 percent of my mother’s estate, as well as getting joint access to my mother’s sizable checking and savings accounts. My mother’s sister has informed me that she will be keeping all account monies and that I am powerless to even go into my mother’s house to start cleaning.
I’ve spoken to a lawyer and there’s not much I can do to prove any fraud on the part of my aunt. I am learning to come to terms with these facts, but I am having a hard time opening up to communicating with her. I am so hurt and sad, my lungs clam up and my heart pounds with anxiety. I feel cheated. I don’t want to see my aunt or have anything to do with her, but I will have to at some point to settle the estate. I need advice on how to deal with this situation.
A: Would it be possible to hire a lawyer to communicate with your mother’s sister on your behalf as she settles the estate? Not for the purposes of taking her to court, of course, but if you’re still coming to terms with your mother’s death and also feel like your aunt has taken unnecessary steps to freeze you out of the process of dealing with your mother’s belongings, it might feel like a relief to know you have a professional handling the minute details and bulk of the communication, so that you don’t have to spend a significant portion of your time trying to talk to her while also attempting to stave off an anxiety attack.
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Q. What does he do?: I’m in my 20s and in a great live-in relationship for two years. He’s funny, emotionally generous, and profoundly kind. We’re highly compatible and have already been through a lot together.
The thing is, when I say I have a boyfriend, no one asks me if he’s kind and supportive—they ask, “What does he do?” He doesn’t have a “real job” of any sort; he makes a web series that earns money through ads and crowdfunding and has enthusiastic financial support from his family, which means he doesn’t need a day job. His show is high-effort, wholesome, and brings joy to thousands of people, but I find none of that matters when I’m asked to explain what he does, especially to middle-aged or older people at work and in my family, whose standards of career success are conventional and very high.
I think if he waited tables to support his art I’d say so with pride, but I’m often embarrassed to say he has an internet show, well-off parents, and nothing else. I’m career-oriented but in a low-paying field, so no one will assume I’m supporting us both. (I’m also frustrated because I suspect if he were a woman and I were a guy, people wouldn’t be nearly as concerned with how my partner earns money.) “It’s none of your business what he does” seems unnecessarily hostile—what’s a polite way to answer or deflect this question?
A: I understand why you’d rather talk about your boyfriend’s personal qualities, but “Oh, what does he do?” is a fairly common (and often neutral) question people ask when getting to know someone else. Unless it’s delivered with an obviously judgmental tone, I don’t think you should assume people are inquiring because they’re nosy and eager to condemn him. “He writes [or produces, or whatever his exact role] a web series” is a perfectly serviceable answer. There’s no reason for you to add, “His parents support him financially.” If anyone were to follow up by asking how he makes a living, you’re not obligated to provide them details; simply say, “He manages, thanks.” Then, if you want to talk about how kind and supportive he is, or how happy you are together, go for it.
Q. Girl interrupted: I know everyone hates being interrupted, but for me, it can be triggering. I live with multiple mental illnesses, including complex PTSD. When someone talks over me or cuts me off multiple times, I immediately freeze and shut down. I know that this is a trauma response and that based on my history, my brain thinks this is the best way to protect myself. This can be accompanied by physical distress and sensations.
For the most part, I’ve been able to develop healthy coping mechanisms and a compassionate understanding of my mental health issues. But this is one I’m finding very difficult to deal with in the workplace. There’s all the “lean in/speak out/take up space as a woman in the workplace” advice, but for someone living with this type of trauma response, it’s easier said than done.
Furthermore, my current workplace has been a hostile place to discuss mental health issues. How do I navigate being able to speak up—when my body wants to shut down—without the safety of being able to wholeheartedly address what’s going on?
A: If you know that bringing up mental health issues in the workplace is likely to backfire, it might be possible to phrase it as a productivity saver at the start of a conversation: “It can be difficult for me to regain my train of thought after interruptions, and I want to make sure that we cover everything, so it will really help me if you can save your thoughts and questions until afterwards.” In the long run, of course, I hope you’re able to find a job in an environment where discussing mental health issues isn’t totally taboo, but in the short term I think whatever you can do to disguise it as an issue of efficiency—and don’t we all want to be maximally efficient in the workplace?—may help.
Q. Re: Ending the engagement: It is not at all a silly issue, but revealing of something deep about him. I went through a similar roadblock, but from the other end. My fiancée had kept her ex’s name for professional ease and didn’t want to change it (again), and I wanted her to take mine. Based on how I reacted to her desires, the relationship ultimately fell apart. Looking back, it was probably the most selfish and self-defeating thing I’ve ever done. I’m not proud of who I was then but am relieved that I grew from the experience and did not make the same mistake with my wife now!
A: Thank you so much for letting us know what it’s like on the other side. I’m glad you were able to learn and grow from it, and I hope the letter writer’s fiancé is able to catch himself in the middle of his mistake now, rather than in a few years after she’s left him.
Q. In between: My niece is no longer speaking to her mother, my sister. The long and short of it was my sister accused her of stealing money from her and my niece denied it. No one knows what happened—my niece had a history of shoplifting as a teen, but my sister is also very forgetful and has left her purse at restaurants. Either way, they haven’t spoken to each other in a year.
My niece still talks to me regularly. It is hard, but I think it might be for the best—their relationship has always been fraught and my niece is doing better on her own. My sister will not bury the hatchet and begs and pleads with me for information on her daughter. I promised her I would tell her if something serious like an illness happens, but I don’t want to lose my niece’s trust. I know my niece doesn’t want her mother to know who she is dating or where she plans to go for the holidays. I tell my sister this, but then I get more guilt and more tears. It is a constant cycle and it is wearing me down. How do get through to my sister?
A: “I can’t act as a go-between with your daughter. If you want to try to repair your relationship with her, then you should talk to her directly. If you don’t want to, then I think you should find a therapist to deal with some of these feelings. What you can’t do is keep trying to pump me for information. I understand this may feel painful, but I’m not going to violate my niece’s trust. If you bring this up again, I’m going to end the conversation.”
Q. In love with a friend: Over the past year, I’ve fallen in love with a friend I made after I moved to my new city. He is wonderful, and now that we’re both single, I think I need to tell him how I feel. However, I’m awful at expressing my emotions and have no idea how to approach this subject. It took me months to even admit to myself that these feelings were real. I’ve never made the first move or expressed my interest to a man before, partially because I’m afraid of my feelings, and partially because it’s still ingrained in me that it’s improper for women to ask men out.
I’m also concerned that if I get drunk around him, my feelings will come out as word vomit. How can I explain my feelings in a way that is tasteful and won’t be friendship-ending if he doesn’t feel the same way?
A: Make sure you’re sober first. I don’t think it’s wise to open with “I’ve fallen in love with you,” because unless you’re pretty sure he feels the same way, it’s an awful lot of pressure on him to catch up. Start with the idea of going on a date. “I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but I have—I think you’re wonderful, and we get along so well, and now that we’re both single I’d love to go on a date. If you don’t feel the same way, then I’d love to keep being friends, but I’d kick myself if I didn’t ask.”
Q. Re: Frozen out of inheritance: This letter writer needs a second opinion ASAP. As a probate attorney, in the three states in which I have practiced, there would be a good case for either undue influence or lack of capacity. If the will were thrown out, then the daughter would inherit. The real issue is this: Is there enough money or goods to make such a lawsuit worth it? It’s going to cost $10,000 to start. Was the mother worth that?
A: It depends, I think, on whether the mother had ever clearly stated that she wanted the letter writer to inherit the bulk of her estate or act as executor. Given that she was living on and off with both of them before her death, there may be reason to believe that she would have wanted her sister to inherit a sizable portion, and the letter writer doesn’t mention—beyond feeling sad about the situation in general and the fact that her mother had brain cancer—any pre-existing conflicting wishes or promises. But a second opinion is likely a good idea, and it may help the letter writer to feel like they’ve explored all possible options.
Q. My friend wants to ask my secret boyfriend out: I’ve become good friends with “Beth.” Recently Beth asked if I was close to our mutual friend “Andrew” and whether I knew if he was seeing anyone. I told her Andrew and I just hung out sometimes and that I didn’t know whether he was seeing anyone.
The truth is I lied: Andrew and I have been quietly dating for a few months. We’d like to keep it to ourselves for now, which is why I didn’t tell Beth the truth. This weekend Beth confessed to me that she has a huge crush on Andrew, that they’ve been talking a bunch recently, and that she is going to ask him out. I know they’ve been talking recently (Andrew told me), but I’m also aware he has no interest in her.
Beth has been a really good friend to me. When she told me about her feelings for Andrew, she added, “I thought you might be seeing each other, in which case I would have totally backed off and asked you not to tell him.” I chose to keep my relationship with Andrew private (I’m a private person) rather than fess up to Beth that we are together.
Now I’m not sure what to do or how to act around Beth. I feel like I’ve betrayed her trust in some way, but at the same time, I feel like I have a right to keep my romantic life private. What should I have done? What should I do going forward?
A: There’s keeping a relationship relatively private, and then there’s out-and-out lying to your friends when they say things like, “I thought you two might be dating, and if that were the case, I would not ask him out.” That’s not private, that’s secret.
You’re certainly entitled to keep your boyfriend a secret if that’s what you want, but at this point it’s clearly obvious to at least some of the people in your life that there’s something going on between you two, and you know perfectly well that Beth is going to be rejected and likely embarrassed when she asks out your boyfriend. If the two of you ever plan on acknowledging your relationship to your friends, Beth is likely to feel confused, hurt, and angry with both of you for having put her in this position when she did everything in her power to find out whether she’d be stepping on any toes by asking him out. When it got to the point where Beth flat-out asked you whether you two were seeing each other—which she clearly asked in good faith and because she wanted to respect any possible pre-existing commitment—you should have told her that yes, the two of you are involved but keeping things fairly quiet for now.
As it is, I think you should take her aside again, apologize for not telling her when she asked you directly, but you’d been wanting to keep this relationship a secret for a little while longer. That doesn’t mean you and Andrew have to start scheduling group dinners tomorrow and announcing your couple status to the world. But unless there’s a very good reason not to tell Beth or it would conflict with your general safety and well-being, I think you should tell her and save her the embarrassment. (And reread Emma when you get the chance.)
More Dear Prudence
My Parents Give Me Too Much Money
I Was Ghosted by My Best Friend of 25 Years
My Husband Won’t Stop Exposing Himself to Our Teenage Daughter
Is My Couch-Surfing Sister Using Us to Make a Fortune on Airbnb?
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.