Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My parents are too generous?: I’m fortunate enough that my family has always been upper-middle class, though I individually am not as I start a new job in a new state after finishing graduate school. Whenever I ask my parents for financial help, or when they offer it as a gift, they always give me more money than I asked for. For example, my mother paid for a moving company even though I insisted that I could move apartments on my own. The total was approximately $600. When I checked my bank account, she had deposited $1,000. I asked my parents for a $2,000 loan when I needed to buy a “new” used car after mine was totaled, and they gave me $5,000 and won’t accept any payments from me. This happens whenever I ask for help.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful—I’m very grateful they can help me out of financial jams while I’m trying to get my feet under me. But it always makes me feel bad when they give me too much money. Like I’m still a child who can’t make it on my own. My mom says it’s because I got scholarships for school, so she wants to help me financially now since she didn’t pay for my college. I just want my parents to let me pay them back for loans or help me only as much as I’m asking for. How do I tell my parents to stop giving me too much money without making them think that I’m ungrateful for the help they provide?
A: This is a first, I think! I don’t often get letters of this kind, so I’m a bit unsure how to proceed. I think that in the long term, not asking your parents for money is going to be the best and easiest way to make sure that they don’t give you too much. If you still have a shared bank account that your parents can access and deposit money into without your clearance, then it will help to set up an account of your own where you can review and approve deposits before they’re cleared. When it comes to something like the moving company, where you did not need any money in the first place, you can thank your parents for the suggestion, make the move on your own, and return the money. If they give you more money than you need for a car, use only what you asked for, and then write them a check for the excess the next time you see them. You can tell them you’re extremely grateful for their generosity, but that you don’t want or need for them to make up for not paying for your college. You finished college (without debt, it sounds like) and want to work on establishing financial independence, so the greatest gift they can give you now is to take a step back and encourage you to do so.
Q. Broke brother: I have one sibling who lives at home with my parents. My brother has a part-time job that pays very little. I have my own house and am more independent even though I’m younger. I love going on vacations with my family, except for the last vacation. My brother and I shared a hotel room, and while I should have cleared things with him before the trip, I didn’t, and he expected me to pay the entire hotel bill. I didn’t budget for the entire bill. I asked my parents to go over the costs with him before the trip because he lives with them and they made the reservations. When I asked for payment, he very angrily paid a small fraction of the bill. It’s been a year and he hasn’t paid me back. I want to go on a vacation without him this year, just my parents and I. How do I navigate this? He’s very sensitive and my parents often take his side.
A: I think the line to draw here is that you can make requests in advance of both your brother and your parents, but you cannot control their behavior, and if he does not agree to split the bill evenly in advance, or if they do not agree to take a trip without him, then you should make whatever decision you think likeliest to result in a fun, stress-free trip for you—even if that means traveling without your family entirely.
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Q. Body talk: I’m visiting with the majority of my extended family in November. I have a complicated relationship with my body and have worked really hard to remove moralistic language around food and bodies from my vocabulary. I recently joined a new gym and my body has noticeably changed. Historically, if I even mention exercising, my mom jumps immediately to “You look like you’ve lost weight” type comments. I generally respond with “Hmm, I don’t pay attention to that stuff.” I’m already bracing for these comments, which will come mostly from my mom but perhaps everyone. I’m considering having a pre-emptive conversation with my mom. Is this a good idea? Any advice about scripts? I exercise because it supports my mental health and the sustainability of my career, and constant comments about my weight challenge the work I’ve done to love my body as is.
A: “Mom, I want to ask you a favor. It would mean a lot to me if you would not make comments or ask questions about my body, especially when it comes to weight. I’ve been trying to develop a healthier relationship with my body, and I’d love it if you could help me by not bringing up my appearance, even to pay a compliment. It may seem a little unusual to you, but it would mean so much to me. Can you help?”
Q. My spouse is unhappy with our marriage: My spouse and I have been together for about 10 years, married for seven. To this day, in my own mind and to most who know us, we are that gross couple everyone hates because we’re still in our honeymoon phase. We are very loving and affectionate, the sex is good, and I feel like we’re best friends but also fully developed individuals with plenty of separate interests. I am very happy, and this is everything I want out of a marriage. My partner, however, has stated multiple times within the last year or so that they are unhappy in our relationship. When I ask for specifics in order to try to resolve whatever issues they believe we have, they cannot tell me anything that is specifically wrong or give me any examples, other than wanting to be polyamorous. After giving it much thought after the first time they brought polyamory up (they’ve done so twice in total), I am not willing to do that. Usually, though, they are just vague about the source of the unhappiness and then they want me to just forget about it and move on. They always bring it up again at some point, though. They refuse to see a marriage counselor with me. It constantly weighs on my mind that my partner is unhappy, and they will make comments like they’d “rather be unhappy and married to you than happy and not married” that make no sense to me. I have said clearly that I love them, but do not want to be married to someone who isn’t happy with our marriage and is staying with me for other reasons. It’s making me depressed and insecure, and since they’re so secretive about it, I’m afraid they’ll just leave me one day without any explanation. Why would they say this repeatedly, but not give me the info to fix things? Why have they not left me yet?
A: This sounds absolutely devastating. To say something like “I prefer to be unhappy and married to you,” while also refusing to see a marriage counselor, puts you in the position of a permanent and irrevocable source of misery in your spouse’s life. At worst, this is a conscious manipulation tactic designed to make you so guilty and desperate that you agree to a polyamorous arrangement in order to make your partner happy again. At best, this is an unconscious manipulation tactic, or an attempt to get you to end the marriage because your spouse is too cowardly to do so.
Please see a counselor without your spouse so that you have someone to talk to about this. It may very well be that you need to end this marriage, because your spouse has put you in an impossible position: “You make me miserable, but there’s nothing we can do about it, although I’m going to remind you that you make me miserable just often enough that you start to panic and doubt yourself at every turn. By the way, if we were polyamorous, I’d be happy, even though I know that’s not something you want.”
Q: Re: My parents are too generous?: You will pay them back—in 20 or 30 years, when their ability and your need have flipped to them having greater needs and you having more wherewithal. If you really are afraid that you will become dependent on their generosity, then put the excess money into CDs, an IRA or some other account you won’t be able to touch. It doesn’t sound like they don’t feel you are capable. My advice is to let them do this for you; it makes them happy, and if you put the money away it doesn’t hurt your independence.
A: That’s a great idea, too. If it seems impossible to get them to give less, and you don’t want to make it a constant point of contention, then find ways to either pay it forward to friends of yours who may not have wealthy parents or to set it aside so that you’ll have something on hand later.
Q. Ghoul-friend: I last talked to one of my best girlfriends a year ago. She and I had been wonderful friends for over 10 years. Then she told me that she was having an affair and was leaving her husband for another man. I realized she’d been lying not just to her husband, but to me, too. She lied about why she couldn’t get together with me, or why she was bailing last-minute on plans for an unexplained work trip over a weekend, and when we would get together with our kids, she’d ditch us to text with “somebody” who I later found out was the other man. I knew I wasn’t her husband; I wasn’t the one she cheated on. But I felt lied to, and I felt like she didn’t care about coming clean with me or apologizing for being dishonest. And so over time, I ghosted her.
Prudie, I miss her, but I still feel hurt that she lied to me. When she told me about the affair, she never apologized for lying or pushing her kids onto me while she cheated. Besides the random Instagram “like,” I haven’t heard anything from her. Is it worth reaching out to her?
A: It can be a bit tricky to get in touch with someone with both a desire to reconnect and a sense that one is owed an apology, but I think it’s possible for you to at least try. You know she’s at least nominally interested in keeping in touch with you because she sends the occasional ping on social media, so you might suggest something like this: Tell her that you miss her, that you regret going radio silent, but that you still feel hurt about the ways in which her affair kept you in the dark. Ask if she’s ever available to get together and discuss that time in your friendship and how it affected both of you. You can assure her that you’re not looking to get together just to browbeat her, but that her behavior hurt you, even though you still care for her. If she’s interested in having a complicated conversation—and there’s reason to believe she may be—then I think there’s hope for a new and different kind of friendship.
Q. Re: Broke brother: Easy solution: Pay for your own hotel room in advance. You clearly enjoy vacationing with your family, so if you’re going to pay extra, at least pay for something that’s not going to aggravate you. Most importantly, you’re not going to be contributing to the overindulgence of another adult who is capable of self-sufficiency.
A: Yes, if you decide that taking the family trip is worth it, then that’s a good way to make sure that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Q. My husband’s best friend’s sister is in love with him!: “Jill” and my husband are old friends. Three years ago, my husband and I were dating, and Jill was engaged to her now husband, “Max.” During this time period Jill confessed her love for my husband to him. He rejected her. Unfortunately, Jill still incessantly tries to contact my husband. He has tried ignoring her and keeping his replies curt, but she still reaches out at least every other week. Things like “I miss you” and “When are you coming home to me?” (We live far away.) Once she even said she had a dream about him. He shows me every time she contacts him. Our patience is wearing thin because we both think the things she says and the frequency of her contacts are extremely inappropriate. We also think Max would be uncomfortable with this whole thing if he knew what she was doing. We are also very close to her entire family. Two of her brothers were groomsmen in our wedding and great friends. My husband has no interest in maintaining a friendship with Jill, but there is no way that we can avoid seeing her at parties and gatherings when we are in town.
So we are stuck. We want to just say “f— off” and block her on social media, but we are worried about her making a stink about that and demonizing me or my husband or spreading lies about us (that’s the kind of person she is). We don’t think it’s our place to tell her husband that she confessed her love to another man while they were engaged, but we are afraid just cutting her out of our life will lead to a blowup where we either have to tell everyone the situation, which we don’t feel is our place, or risk getting smeared. How can we handle this delicately? We have screenshots of pretty much everything she has said to my husband—would it be out of line for my husband to talk to one of her brothers and show him the screenshots so they could hopefully tell her to stop? We don’t think talking to her directly would go well at all.
A: It is unfortunate that your families are close, but it is not a problem—or rather, it is not your problem. What Jill is doing is harassment. She’s spent the last three years badgering him on a near-weekly basis, and this goes so far beyond appropriate or reasonable behavior that you have absolutely no responsibility to keep secrets for her or try to keep up appearances when you’re socializing with others. Jill may very well “make a stink” about it if your husband blocks her, but she’s already making enormous demands of your time and energy, and I simply don’t think there’s an option for you where you can guarantee she will behave reasonably. It is very much your place to talk honestly about the harassment you have experienced. That’s not out of line or blowing up a private secret. Block her immediately, let your friends and family know that she has spent the last three years harassing your husband, and that you do not want any further contact with her. Don’t let the fear of things “not going well” keep you trapped in this cycle. Things aren’t going well now.
Q. Re: Body talk: The first time your mom mentions your weight, here is your script: “Thank you.” The next umpteen times she or anyone mentions your weight, here is your script: “You already mentioned that.” And then change the subject. If you don’t want your body to be a topic, don’t let it be a topic. Certainly do not make it a topic with a pre-emptive speech.
A: I don’t think the letter writer would be making it a topic with a pre-emptive speech, because previous attempts at bland deflection haven’t made a difference. Framing it as a direct request might not be immediately effective, but they’ve already established that comments like “Oh, OK, thanks” haven’t worked, so I think this is a good next step. If that doesn’t get the letter writer anywhere either, then they’ll have to decide how best to scale back on some of these interactions. And they may need to keep deploying the “Hmm, thanks” method with the family no matter what.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week on Tuesday rather than Monday!
I have a 5-month-old baby. My mother came to help out when he was born, and my husband and I are grateful to her for that. But we both began to notice while she was here that she would disparage my ability to breastfeed. I didn’t think that much of it, even though my husband felt she wanted to be holding our son more than I did. Now when she visits she routinely says that my son is “making do” with the mother he has, that it’s unfortunate for him that she isn’t around us most of the time. On her last visit she pointed out that she was a stay-at-home mother and I am not, so I need to have more of a routine in order to be a good mother. When she comes, I feel constantly judged, which is making me feel more distant from her. I think that she is jealous that I have a baby because her days of being a young mother are long past. I don’t know if I should bring any of this up to her. She is a very touchy person and I’m not sure it would do any good. How do I deal with this?
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