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. Always the ex: My boyfriend once dated the girl next door—literally. “Emma” played with him in the wading pool and dated him through high school and college. It is the biggest disappointment to everyone that the relationship didn’t work out. Emma is constantly present at family events with her parents. Everyone loves her and has so many stories to tell about my boyfriend and her.
I feel like I am going crazy. No one is especially unfriendly. No one has told me upfront that I am the interloper and unwanted, but Emma is very obviously in the in crowd while I am not. My boyfriend and I keep getting into fights over this. He tells me he can’t disinvite Emma and her parents because of me and that unless I can give him specifics, it seems like I am insecure.
He tells me he loves me and only me. I feel like no matter what I do, I am cast in the part of the bitch: I ask Emma to stay away, I am wrecking a 20-year friendship; I keep my boyfriend away, I am the jealous home-wrecking harpy. I don’t want to make small talk with my boyfriend’s ex over brunch! Am I crazy here? I will admit Emma has not done anything overtly flirtatious, but I am sick of her face.
A: If you’re sick of Emma’s face and totally incapable of being polite to her at family gatherings, then this guy is not the boyfriend for you. It would be one thing if you felt like you never got to see your boyfriend by himself or if his parents went out of their way to tell you that you’ll never measure up to her, but that’s not the case here. You could, for example, reasonably say, “I would love to get to know your parents/siblings/whomever a little better as a couple. Could we set up a brunch with them sometime that’s just the four of us?” You could not, however, reasonably say, “I don’t want Emma to come to family events, and if she’s going to be present, I don’t want you to attend.” Emma is a part of your boyfriend’s family as a person in her own right, not simply as your boyfriend’s ex, and you have no grounds to ask them to remove her.
Find a way to take your boyfriend’s claim that he wants to be with you and not with her at face value. Find a way to take Emma’s nonflirtatious behavior at face value. It certainly doesn’t sound like she’s trying to get him back; it sounds like she’s a platonic part of his family. If his relatives have been otherwise friendly but have a wealth of stories about Emma given that they’ve known her for more than 20 years, then find a way to grin and bear it. If the idea of doing that sounds impossible, then find another boyfriend.
Q. Mourning an acquaintance: I am a member of a relatively small, pretty close-knit church community made up of mostly young adults in their mid- to late 20s. Last week, a member of our congregation was killed in a tragic car accident. Needless to say, our community as a whole is very sad, and many congregants (including some of my closer friends) are really struggling with this tragic loss.
I also am sad about the loss, but in a more detached way. I barely knew her, and to be honest, I never really got along well with her. I am now struggling to find a way to honor her memory and support other members of our community that feels genuine. While plans for an official memorial are being set, there have been a number of informal gatherings and mini-memorials to bring the community together and provide support for those who are really struggling.
I don’t feel comfortable attending these events; I feel that they should be for the people who knew her well so they can share memories and such. But I also feel incredibly guilty and callous for not going. Should I be making more of an effort to attend these events? What’s the best way to honor her memory that doesn’t overstate the vague acquaintanceship we had or disrespect those who were closest to her?
A: Your attendance at these informal memorials doesn’t take anything away from this woman’s close friends and family. Since you’re not making any claims about how well you knew her or how much she meant to you, I don’t think anyone would see your presence as a declaration of extreme closeness, so much as a sign of love and support for your grieving community. If there are a number of these memorials coming up, you certainly don’t have to attend them all, but if you wanted to go to one or two, I think you could actually provide some of that “support for those who are really struggling,” especially because some of the people struggling most are your good friends.
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Q. Visiting divorced and remarried parents over the holidays: My parents got divorced and remarried when I was very young. Throughout most of my adolescence, they’ve gotten along extremely well, even celebrating Christmas, Easter, et cetera, together as a whole extended family when we all lived near each other. Spending part of Christmas break with both sets of parents was easy during high school and college when I had almost a month off.
But now that I’m out of school and working across the country from both sets with limited paid time off, I’m unsure of how best to coordinate holiday visits. While my mom and dad do get along, my mom has expressed to me how depressing the holidays are when I’m not celebrating them with her. I don’t want to neglect my dad and stepmom, but I also hate to upset my mom. How do I navigate the holiday season without breaking my travel budget or either of my parents’ hearts?
A: I think the most important thing to do is to be upfront with your parents as early as you can about the limits of your time and travel budget. If you can only afford to fly out to visit one side of the family once this year, then be honest about that. This will especially be helpful for your mother so she can make alternative arrangements in advance of the holidays she knows she’s unlikely to see you. You might invite her to come out to visit you (you might invite both sides of the family to visit you, at least once in a while), you might want to alternate holidays, you might want to occasionally stay home and celebrate with friends, or you might want to travel solo. Take your own preferences, travel budget, and your parents’ wishes into account, but don’t make yourself solely responsible for whether or not Mom is going to be happy during Christmas this year.
Q. Intoxicated management: My company doesn’t take drugs or alcohol seriously. Our assistant store manager was high on meth and going to jail for related matters, and it took four months of complaints from customers and co-workers before they finally let her go. Now we have another manager who had been drinking on the job for months. We raised complaints, and finally she was sent home two days in a row for being drunk before 10 a.m. and being completely incoherent, yelling at co-workers, and rambling about things of a sexual nature to co-workers and customers. She was allowed to go to rehab for two months and will be coming back soon.
I’m not sure what to do. All of my coworkers have expressed concern and anxiety about having her back, but management seems dead set on keeping her in the same position at the same location. What can I do? I can’t quit with a baby on the way, but I don’t want to work with this woman who is quite unstable.
A: There is always the hope that your manager has received the help she needed at rehab and will continue to focus on her sobriety after she comes home. Since your company has a history of doing nothing until things hit a crisis point, it may help to check in with the higher-ups before your manager returns, expressing your concern and asking what strategies they have in place to protect you and your co-workers if she—or any other manager—shows up to work drunk and belligerent.
Q. Re: Always the ex: It might not be easy, but the more you’re around your boyfriend’s family, the more opportunities they’ll have to get to know you—and the more stories they’ll have to tell about you, instead of about Emma. If you’re cold to them and/or avoid family gatherings, then Emma is all they’ll ever know.
A: Right! That doesn’t mean you have to look at family gatherings as “socializing-better-than-Emma” contests, but if you really want to stay with your boyfriend and get to know his family as a person in your own right, then you should just, you know, try to get to know his family as a person in your own right.
Q. Suicidal cousins: Five years ago, my 13-year-old daughter texted sexual photos of herself to the boy she loved. When they broke up, he forwarded those photos to 10 of his friends, calling her horrific names. The fallout was catastrophic at the high school they both attended. All of the boys who received her inappropriate photos were called to the principal’s office. My daughter ended up in a residential psychiatric ward after she tried to kill herself.
I just learned my brother’s teen daughter is now in the same facility because she cannot get over that her boyfriend killed himself this year. My daughter does not want me to tell anyone what happened to her, so my question is: How can I comfort and support my brother without being able to share what has happened in my own family?
A: I don’t think you need to say anything about your own daughter’s experience in order to comfort and support your brother now. Tell him you love him, offer a supportive ear if he needs to talk, bring food, offer to run errands, and offer your niece the same after she returns home. Even if your daughter had never had a similar experience, I think you would still want to care for your brother in the middle of this extremely painful time—he’ll still feel supported even without knowing what happened to your daughter five years ago.
Q. Money feelings, job changes, and splitting the rent: Until recently, my partner and I were in the same (low) income bracket. However, they have gone back to school, are taking out loans, and are earning less, whereas I’ll soon be earning more than double what either of us has made before.
We plan to move in together within the next few months, and I’d like to offer to pay a significant share of our rent when that happens. This seems like such a reasonable way for me to help reduce the stress that they have about returning to school, and I’d love to support them in this way. But I also have some fears. They don’t like to ask for help and don’t always accept it easily, and I fear that any kind of inequality in the relationship might make them feel dependent. I also fear that if we broke up at some point, I would regret not having saved more for my own future. This isn’t a huge worry; though marriage or something like it is a ways off, we have a really sweet and healthy relationship. But I also have a track record of being more generous with friends than I can afford and then regretting it later, so I’ve got some baggage there.
This is the first time in my life when I’ve made more money than I’ve needed to survive, and the thought of earning so much has definitely produced some “Feelings.” Given these, I want to make sure to have the conversation about rent as thoughtfully as possible—and as separately as possible from my other money feelings. Any advice?
A: I think these feelings of trepidation are worth paying attention to before you make any offers to your partner. Between your track record of regretting impulsive acts of generosity with friends and your fear that if the two of you broke up you’d wish you hadn’t made the offer at all, I think there’s definitely reason to think you’ll feel trapped and resentful if you offer to pay for most of your partner’s housing costs upon moving in together. Your partner has not, it sounds like, ever asked you for money before (and is not asking for any now!).
The fact that you’re earning more money than you ever have before and seem anxious about the capital-F Feelings this has engendered makes me wonder if this has more to do with your own anxiety than with something your partner actually wants or needs from you. Operating out of instinct might go something like this: You feel uncomfortable making this much money, an easy and obvious fix is to give a bunch of it away as quickly as possible, and that way you get to go back to your old problems of not having quite enough money, which at least feel familiar and predictable.
I think a better strategy now would be to talk to your partner about your shared expenses and budget for moving in together—not asking to suddenly start a joint account, or for them to account for every purchase they make to you, or for you to pay the majority of the rent—but simply to discuss what costs you’re likely to share once you live together and how you’d like to handle them. You may also want to consult a financial adviser as you deal with the problem of what to do with having more money than you ever planned on making, so you don’t feel totally lost and adrift.
Q. Re: Mourning an acquaintance: I’ve heard a saying, “Funerals are for the living.” You can attend these gatherings with the primary goal of supporting your friends in their grief if that’s meaningful to you. No one needs to know your exact feelings toward the deceased, and if they are less than warm, they really should not be shared.
A: Yes, that’s exactly it. Funerals are pretty different from weddings, where (usually) one’s attendance is based on someone’s closeness to the happy couple. Obviously traditions can differ depending on religious and cultural background, but generally speaking, if one attends somebody else’s funeral, there’s not necessarily an immediate assumption that one was particularly close with the deceased.
Q. Explaining weird eating habits: Due to sensory processing issues from autism, I’m a very picky eater. I’ve learned to live with it, and I still enjoy food and eat a balanced diet.
The only time my eating habits become a problem is when I’m dating someone. After a few dates, they start to notice me ordering the same dish everywhere we go. I’m deeply uncomfortable discussing my autism even with my closest friends and family, and I’d rather not bring it up on a date, especially because I know it will change the way they see me and I like to save that conversation for later in a relationship, when we’re closer and I’m more comfortable around them and feel I can trust them. But I don’t know how else to explain my eating habits without seeming childish (“picky eater” is something most people expect you to grow out of). What would you do?
A: I suppose it depends at least a little on what your dates do when they notice you’ve ordered the same dish a few times in a row (there’s always the option of not going out to eat on every early date, but there are only so many non-food-related date activities, and most dates do run up against at least one mealtime, so I don’t want to suggest it as a cure-all). If they remark on it casually or ask a non-judgmental-sounding question, you can offer a polite deflection like “Oh, X is my favorite food. It may seem a little unusual but I really never get tired of it.” If they badger you about it or imply that you need to “grow up” and order something different, that may be a sign that they’re more than a little boorish and not someone you can trust with more personal information.
The most important thing, I think, is that you don’t have to offer a long or involved explanation about why you ordered something—a gracious date, if they brought up your order at all, would accept “It’s my favorite” or “I know what I like” at face value, and leave it at that.
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