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. Chatting, let’s do it!
Q. My best friend of 25 years: My friend is estranged from her mother, whom she calls a narcissist, and also from her adult daughter. She recently sent me an angry email accusing me of having “major information” about her daughter that I had an obligation to share with her. She wants me to be “upfront about what happened” and to apologize. But I have no idea what she is talking about.
When I claimed ignorance and innocence, she told me I was “completely dishonest.” I offered to work with her to get to the bottom of the situation, but she refuses to tell me what this information is or where it came from. I have not had contact with her daughter or any mutual friend for years. Her daughter is one of my son’s 500 Facebook friends, but he also denies having any information and says he hasn’t interacted with the daughter in years. My friend unfriended me on Facebook and refuses my calls. Am I being gaslit? Is this friendship salvageable?
A: This sounds bewildering and distressing and like it’s coming out of nowhere. You’ve known her for 25 years. Aside from her familial estrangements, does your friend have a habit of suddenly cutting people off without explanation or discussion? If this is new for her, are you at all concerned for her mental health and well-being? If so, is there anyone else who’s still in touch with her that you could discuss your concerns with? As to whether this friendship is salvageable, I don’t think there’s much you can do as long as she’s unwilling to either tell you what you’ve done or speak to you at all. You can tell her that you’re truly bewildered by these claims, that you’ve thought back on all the contact with her daughter you’ve had over the years and have no idea what she might be talking about, that you’re available to talk if she ever changes her mind, but that in the meantime you have not been hiding anything from her and have nothing to apologize for. If she continues on her current course—and my guess is that she will—then there’s not much you can do to salvage the friendship.
Q. Grieving for someone who is still here: I lost touch with one of my best friends from college in the past few years, only to find out later that he’s been experiencing an undiagnosed medical issue that was destroying his mind, similar to Alzheimer’s, but in his 30s. Completely heartbreaking. When I first found out how bad it was, I was out of the country, and he was mostly unable to communicate by phone or in writing. I didn’t know what to do or how to reach out without placing further burden on his family—I still don’t. They live several states away, his condition is severe (requiring round-the-clock care), and there is little chance he will even recognize me. There is no hope for recovery. I feel awful for not being there to support my friend, for not being able to say goodbye, and I have no idea how to process grief for someone I love who is no longer “here” but still physically present in the world. His family is amazing and would no doubt welcome a visit from any of his friends with open arms, but I barely know them, and it would be financially and logistically challenging. I want his family to know that he’s still very much on my mind and cared about, but it feels like too little, too late. Should I send a card letting them know? Should I try to plan a visit, even though it won’t help him and it would be difficult?
A: I think sending a card is a wonderful idea, and that you should do that before even discussing the possibility of a visit. My guess is that you’re right in assuming a visit would be difficult not only for you but for his caregivers, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting in touch to let them know how much you care about him, how sorry you were to hear about his diagnosis, and how you’ve been unable to get in touch due to being out of the country. Send your love and condolences. This is not too little, too late, and while you can’t fix the situation, I think they will appreciate hearing from someone who cares for him and wants to be supportive in any way possible.
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Q. Regressive thinking: I’m active in supporting LGBT causes. My boyfriend recently said that “this whole LGBT thing has gone way too far” and that he’s no longer sure what to think about same-sex marriage, even though he had thought he supported it. Worse, he said that maybe the original civil rights movement went too far, and perhaps businesses should be allowed to racially discriminate if they want to. In fairness, that was in response to me pointing to that as a precedent for LGBT rights, but I’m not sure that makes it better. I’m just aghast. How can I make him see how wrong he is?
A: That doesn’t make it better. You can’t make him see how wrong he is. Leave him. Don’t fall prey to the delusion that if you can only explain civil rights well enough to him, he will suddenly stop thinking that racist discrimination and homophobia are a good idea. Leave.
Q. Holiday vacation: My holiday plans fell through with my parents. My brothers and sisters all have plans to see their in-laws, as we met up as a family this summer. So my week of Christmas is going to be me and my dogs. I would normally give the week up for someone else at work, but my two new co-workers, “Susan” and “Kelly,” have been particularly nasty to me. Susan spent weeks badmouthing me because I wouldn’t switch shifts with her to accommodate her child care issues (I was taking night classes). Kelly told me to my face that “people with families should have priority during the holidays.” Our company does work that continues 24/7, so someone has to be in the office. Our supervisor is also a wimp. If I refuse to give up my holiday spot, Kelly or Susan will whine until they get it. If it was anybody else, I would happily give up Christmas. Should I give it up anyway? I feel strangely guilty. I am going to do nothing but play with my dogs and watch Netflix.
A: You’ve earned the holiday time off as a hard-working employee and get to use it as you see fit, whether that be cooking a six-course meal for a huge group of people or relaxing with your dogs and watching movies. The fact that Kelly has chosen to have children does not mean she’s the only one with a family, nor does it mean it’s your responsibility to always pick up the slack around the office in order for her to have a work-life balance. I hope your company is able to accommodate Susan’s child care schedule. It’s the company’s responsibility to treat its employees well, not your responsibility as a childless person. Take the week off, enjoy relaxing and decompressing from what sounds like a pretty busy work-and-school schedule, and change the subject when Kelly and Susan try to start up their old routine about how unfair it is that you get to take the holidays off.
Q. What’s my story?: I’m about to return to my workplace after taking a few months of medical leave for anxiety issues. My absence was unexpected, and I haven’t disclosed the reason to any co-workers. Normally I believe in fighting mental health stigma with openness, but my issues were precipitated by interpersonal incidents in my workplace. I wouldn’t be surprised if people suspect my absence is related, and I’m pretty sure everyone is savvy enough to know better than to ask directly. When I return, how should I address the elephant in the room when I need to respond to polite, vague inquiries about my health?
A: I’m not sure that you do need to address the elephant in the room. If anyone inquires vaguely and politely about your health, you can say something like, “I’m doing much better, thank you, and I’m really looking forward to getting caught up and back in the swing of things.” (Hopefully it’s true that you’re doing better, and that you feel like you have more tools and sources of support for managing your anxiety than you did before.) I think it may be more useful to your mental health to draw some boundaries at work so that you don’t feel as if your co-workers know more about your treatment plan than is strictly necessary, and to make it clear that those “interpersonal incidents” aren’t likely to happen again. Focus on work at work. Making yourself feel responsible for combating mental health stigma in the workplace is an awfully daunting task, and I don’t think it’s something you need to take on.
Q. Gross: A co-worker set me up with her brother. He was fun, flirty, and I wanted to get to know him better—until we went out to eat. I have seen animals eat more discreetly. We were at a loud, popular restaurant, and I heard every chew. I saw every bite. Bits of food fell out of his open mouth and into his facial hair. It made me nauseated. It killed whatever connection we had, and I refused any further dates. Weeks later, my co-worker still remarks to me about what went wrong, and I feel guilty. Her brother was witty and attractive. He seems like a good guy. Do I owe it to him to tell his sister about why I aborted our dates? Would it do any good?
A: It could only make your working relationship more challenging to tell your co-worker, “Your brother ate dinner so repulsively it killed my attraction to him.” You don’t have to be detailed in order to be clear—say that he seems like a great guy, but the connection just wasn’t there for you, and that you don’t want to discuss it any further. (And, of course, this is a reminder that there are a number of ways getting set up by your co-workers can go wrong, and only one or two ways it can go right.)
Q. Sadly sexless: My husband and I haven’t had sex in nearly two years. When this first started, he said he was too busy grading his students’ papers and needed to get better at time management. Then he told me he was unhappy with his physical appearance and wanted to lose weight before resuming intimacy. Last year he claimed that my genitals had an unpleasant smell. (My gynecologist says there is nothing medically wrong with me.) Finally, last month he said he couldn’t have sex because he was depressed. I’m ashamed that my first reaction was to think this was just another excuse. If he actually has depression, I want to make sure he gets the help he needs, but I’m not even 30 and cannot remain in a celibate marriage. Is there a gentle way I can ask about his mental health without accusing him of lying?
A: There are two different questions at stake here. One is what sort of help your husband needs to help him manage his depression, and that may include strategies like talk therapy, speaking to his doctor, working on a different daily routine, and reassessing his various commitments and time management approach, etc. The other issue is how the two of you talk about your sexless marriage, to what degree you’re both capable of being honest about it, and whether or not you’re interested in staying to work on it. You don’t have to ask if he’s lying about being depressed in order to talk about how your sex life affects you. Tell him that you want to have a big-picture conversation about sex and your relationship. See if he looks back and sees his previous reasons for not wanting to have sex as being part of a depression he felt unable to admit to, or if there’s something else he’s not sharing with you (it may be that, depressed or not, he doesn’t see himself having sex again, and that’s information you would want to have). You can talk about how his previous excuses have made you feel, including the cruel and intimate one about the way you smelled. The fact that he considers himself to be depressed is cause for further conversation and action, but you are still allowed to have your own feelings about your marriage and to make decisions in your own self-interest.
Q. When friends are abusive to their dog: The parents of my kid’s friend use hitting as a way to discipline their dog. I have not personally witnessed the mistreatment, but my kids have. My daughter once spoke up because her friend was too scared of her father to say anything. If they did it in front of me—no question—I would call them out, talk to them about training or giving up the dog to rescue. I would also consider reporting them. But I told my daughter that if I broach the subject with them out of the blue, they probably won’t allow her over anymore. What’s the best way to handle this issue?
A: The animal abuse is distressing enough on its own, but I’m also concerned that you say your kid’s friend was “too scared of her father” to ask him to stop. There’s no reason why you can’t speak up simply because you weren’t a firsthand eyewitness. If your child had told you her friend’s father had hurt her, I don’t think you would insist on witnessing the abuse before you took action.
I can appreciate that your kid’s friendship with this girl is important, especially if you have reason to think she may also be in danger, but please don’t keep sending your daughter over to this house where she’s put in the position of being the only person able to speak up when they witness acts of violence. I think you should speak confidentially to your child’s friend and let her know that she can come to you if she’s ever feeling unsafe at home. Consider whether the level of violence they witness—and possibly experience—daily warrants notifying a teacher at school or even child protective services. Encourage play dates at your home or time spent together at school. If you decide to speak to these parents about your concern for the dog, you can do so on the basis of your child’s testimony. You can also alert local animal services without speaking to these parents directly if you think they’re likely to react badly. But you should not tell your daughter, “I can’t say anything because I didn’t see it happen, and besides, your friend’s parents might not let you come over anymore if I do.” That sends the message that if she witnesses violence and abuse, it’s better not to say anything at all.
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