Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. I pressured my husband to have kids and now I am being cut out: When I first met my husband, he made it clear that he never wanted children. I know it was wrong of me, but I wore him down: Seven years ago he became a very reluctant father, and we had another child three years later.
It’s obvious now that we made a terrible mistake. He hates being a parent, finds our children incredibly irritating, and resents me for it. He’s too good a man for them to be aware of his distaste and discomfit, but kids are like cats and the more distant and reserved he is toward them, the more eager they have grown for his attention. They worship him and barely acknowledge me, which pains both of us.
I’m jealous of their affection for him and pained by the fact that all three of them hate me. Am I stuck like this forever? I sometimes feel I should get a divorce, but he doesn’t want custody and my kids don’t want to be around me. Is there any way my marriage can be saved? Or have I screwed everything up completely?
A: I don’t think there’s a marriage to be saved here, so much as an uneven and unpleasant co-parenting relationship. He does not love your children and resents you; you are consumed with remorse and anxiety and desperation. If you’re able to afford it, I think you would both benefit immensely from a couples counselor, even if only to figure out how to divorce as kindly and respectfully as possible. Divorce may seem unattractive because you believe if your husband weren’t forced to live with his children, he would never want to see them, but as they grow up, they’re going to realize one way or another if he truly hates being around them and only does it because he has to.
Q. Compared to an ex: I met my current boyfriend, “Drew,” a few years ago, though we didn’t start dating until recently, partly because when we met, he had a girlfriend. Wading into this new relationship is a bit easier than usual because I’ve known Drew for a while, but something happened not long ago that made me uncomfortable: He mentioned that it was nice to be sleeping with a thin woman again after 3½ years with his ex. I found this attempted compliment uncommonly mean and weird. It was obvious I was upset, and Drew made an excuse to leave soon after.
I’m not friends with Drew’s ex, but I’ve met her and she’s nice and even if she wasn’t, what he said was a low blow. How should I talk to him about this?
A: “It really bothered me that you spoke so negatively about your ex’s body the last time I saw you. I don’t normally see you comparing women’s bodies, so I’m having trouble understanding this side of you. Telling me something snide and unkind about the body of a woman you used to have sex with doesn’t impress me, and it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been complimented. It makes me feel uncomfortable and unsure of your character, and it makes me wonder what you might say to other women about my body. What’s going on here?”
If he can acknowledge that what he did was unkind and unnecessary and offer a sincere apology, then that’s one thing; if he gets evasive or says you must have misunderstood him or that he was “just trying to be nice,” I think you’ve seen a side of him that might change how you see him as a boyfriend.
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Q. Sister: Our father, while in good health, has fallen prey to scammers since our mother died. None of us live near him and paying for caretakers does nothing when those caretakers take advantage of him—we caught one trying to get my father to co-sign a car loan for her kid. My unmarried stepsister has offered to relocate and move in to take care of our father but only if she gets the bulk of the estate (the house, the car, etc.) after he dies. Considering the cut into her career and own retirement options, my brothers and I are happy to agree to this, beyond wanting a few personal items. It seems fair considering we don’t know how long our father is going to live and what his condition might be.
My sister, however, flipped out about letting a “virtual stranger” into our father’s house and allowing her to “take advantage of his state.” My stepsister was abandoned by her biological mother and raised by her stepfather (who later adopted my sister and me when he married our mother and then had our brothers). My stepsister is much older than the rest of us, but my parents never spoke of her as anything less than our sister.
My brothers are ready to cut off relations to my sister entirely over this. As far as they are concerned, she is worried about her inheritance, not our father. It doesn’t help that she and her kids lived rent-free for years with our parents until she remarried and moved away. How do I head this off?
A: “I share your concern for Dad’s well-being, and I plan on calling and stopping by when I can to help care for him. But he’s always spoken of [Stepsister] as part of the family, so calling her a ‘virtual stranger’ is simply untrue. If you would like to move in with Dad and care for him full time, we can revisit the subject; otherwise, this is the plan.”
Q. Re: Compared to an ex: I’ve been both the ex and the new girlfriend in situations with guys like Drew. I can almost guarantee that it’s only a matter of time until he starts finding characteristics of yours that could use some “improvement.” Count yourself lucky that you’ve discovered his true character so early on, and run away as fast as you can.
A: Yeah, anyone who is willing to casually disparage the body of someone they dated for years to a new sexual partner is revealing more than they know. If he’s willing to talk like this about her to you, odds are he’s going to feel comfortable talking about you to someone else.
Q. Help out: There is a 15-year gap between my sister and me. Our mother died when my sister was 20, and her father got a 19-year-old pregnant three months after the funeral. My sister doesn’t speak to him anymore. As much as mutual grief has bound us, I am not close to my sister. She was basically a baby when I moved out, and we don’t have a lot of common ground. We see each other on holidays and make the occasional phone call. I know she suffers from a lot of student debt and her father has failed to make good on his promises to help her out with it. My sister is very prickly and proud.
I am at the point in my life where I could help her pay off her loans, but I am worried about offending her. Sometimes I feel I can see her soul in a conversation and sometimes I am so baffled it feels like we are speaking different languages. How do I offer to help her out without being condescending to her? She is the last bit of my family in this world and I love her, but we are so different in temperament and experience.
A: This is a lovely, generous impulse. If she feels like she’s got a handle on her student loans and would rather pay them herself, then that’s great, but I think offering to help would still be worth it even if she said no. You can tell her that you’ve long admired her independence and vision, that you totally understand if she says no, but that she’s your last remaining family in the world and you would love to be able to help her pay off her loans. Make it clear that this is completely her decision; that it’s rooted in respect, affection, and admiration for her; and that if she says no you won’t bring it up again.
Q. My best friend keeps talking about my sexual assault: My best friend of more than 20 years has, like many women, recently been re-examining her sexual experiences. For the first time, she is realizing how toxic our high school culture was. She knows that I was sexually assaulted in high school and often seeks me out to vent her frustrations whenever a new story hits the media. She continually encourages me to talk about what happened to me and to confront the man who assaulted me, as well as the people that let me down when I attempted to report the assault.
For her, discussing and talking through her anger is motivating and liberating. For me, however, our talks are crippling and leave me haunted by painful memories. I want to be supportive of her, but I can’t handle the emotional bulldozer that hits me every time she needs to vent. How can I let her know that I need a break from the conversation?
A: “I can’t keep talking about my assault with you. If you want to help and support me, please stop bringing it up. I hope you’re able to find other people to talk about sexual assault with, because it’s an important subject and I understand your anger, but these conversations are not helpful to me. In fact, I find them overwhelming and retraumatizing. Now that you know how I feel about them, I hope you’ll stop, because I think your intention is to be helpful.”
Q. Stepdaughter: My stepdaughter got addicted to the Hollywood lights and eschewed a college education for trying to make it as an actress. She has had little to no success in the last two years beyond a few background parts. Her father and I pay for most of her expenses—car, insurance, extra spending money—and she lives with my brother in his pool house rent-free.
She has turned into a complete brat. Twice my brother has come home to her throwing elaborate pool parties with strangers. The last time, he forgot to lock the back door, and they were in his house; he ended up calling the cops. At the end, my brother lost several expensive electronics and someone tried to rob his closet safe. My brother wants my stepdaughter out; she refuses to accept any responsibility. If I see her in person, I am ready to slap her; none of her siblings act like this, and my husband acts helpless in front of the tears. I am at the end of my rope—she didn’t act like this in high school! I don’t know how to handle this.
A: You can encourage your brother to make sure your stepdaughter is given adequate and timely notification of eviction in accordance with state laws.
The real conversation, however, needs to be with your husband—at a time when your stepdaughter isn’t in front of you crying—about how much more financial support you two are willing and able to offer her, and how you will give her advance notice about the eventual (hopefully soon!) cutoff point. Stick to the facts wherever possible—if he starts to get emotional about the prospect of cutting off his “little girl,” point out that the money you two have been giving her has clearly not been helping her build a self-sufficient, stable life. It may be that the kindest and most helpful thing you can do for her is to stop giving her money.
Q. Sister cooks too much: My only sibling and I have a loving but sometimes contentious relationship (over money, elderly parent responsibilities—the usual gamut). She lives alone and has for decades. She loves to cook but has never learned to cook for one, and her fridge and freezer are stuffed. Thus she pushes home-cooked food on me and my husband—not constantly but often. Sometimes this is nice, but I don’t love having a stuffed fridge myself, and we tend to eat a bit healthier than she does, so much of what she gives us goes to waste.
Both my husband and I have tried asking her nicely not to give us food, and she has reacted badly at times and at other times has ignored us and the food has shown up in our fridge or in our bags. I consider ignoring a direct request a boundary violation—a minor one given some others she has committed around money, but it is symbolic of the issues in our relationship, and it bugs both me and my husband. How the hell do I get her to stop without destroying our relationship entirely?
A: “Hey, you know we don’t want or need leftovers, so I hope you’re able to find another way to deal with yours. We’ve tried being clear about this in the past, and I know that was hard for you, but I hope you can put that aside and listen to what we’re saying: We do not want or need extra food, and if any of it continues to show up in our fridge or in our bags, we’re going to throw it away. If you don’t want your leftover food thrown away, then please find someone else to give it to.” Then be as good as your word.
There’s also the slightly more conflict-avoidant route of simply throwing the food away without telling her if you think she’s likely to actually end your relationship over this issue. But I think it’s worth being clear and upfront with her about what you’re going to do regardless of whether or not she stops giving you food.
Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
I am sad my 25-year-old son couldn’t care less about his family. He dropped out of school and lives at home but works the late shift, so we never see him. He will not visit his grandparents, whom he used to adore (they live nearby). He never bought anyone (except his girlfriend) a Christmas present, and he avoids all family functions and has no guilt or remorse saying this is just how he is. He gets tested at work, so we know he is not on drugs. He is the type that if he never saw any of us again he would be OK with that. He has a brother who is not like that at all. My heart breaks that they will never have a relationship or that his father and I cannot count on his help since he is so emotionally detached (and content).
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