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. Let’s chat.
Q. My daughter’s new friends: I’ve been best friends with “Claudia” for most of my life. Until recently, our 11-year-old daughters “Maggie” (mine) and “Laura” (hers) were inseparable. This spring, Maggie began hanging out with a more “popular” group of kids; some of her new friends pick on Laura. The girls’ friendship was rocky over the summer, and now that school has resumed, Maggie all but shuns Laura. I have tried but am failing to like Maggie’s new friends—since she’s started spending time with them, she’s been in trouble for talking back to teachers and for joining in their bullying. My relationship with Claudia has become tense, and I don’t blame her. It’d be very painful to watch Laura treat Maggie the way Maggie has treated Laura. I’m so frustrated by Maggie’s new attitude. I find myself resenting her for the wedge that has been driven between Claudia and me. I love my daughter, but I don’t like her right now, and I don’t know how to welcome her new friends into my home when I know they’re bullies. Do you have any advice?
A: I’m so sorry—it has to feel so difficult to parent a kid who’s still young enough to need patience and guidance as they figure out how to empathize and avoid the thrill of feeling powerful by bullying, but also old enough to act like a real jerk. When it comes to your friendship with Claudia, I think you should give her some space while also making it clear how much you care about and support both her and her daughter. Let her know that you understand if it’s hard for her to spend time together right now, that you’re available to get lunch or catch up one on one if she ever feels up to it, and that you’re working hard to keep your daughter accountable for her own behavior. When it comes to dealing with Maggie, do any other parents whose kids took a sudden left turn into bullying and cruelty around middle school want to talk about what’s worked for them? Either in helping their children change their behavior or simply in maintaining their own sanity—ideally both.
Q. Mutual crush gone too far?: I’m in a happy, committed relationship of five years with my boyfriend, “Tom.” I’ve been a serial monogamist for much of my adult life, but recently Tom and I have begun discussing opening our relationship. I’ve also had a very flirtatious relationship with a guy in my friend group, “Will,” who is also in a long-term relationship. I strongly suspected a mutual attraction. Last weekend, Will and I ended up kissing while our friend group was out dancing. Kissing is allowed in our current relationships, but I didn’t tell Tom right away and it caused a fight. I told Tom that I would hash things out with Will and end our flirtation. Will was very kind about the whole thing. He apologized for putting me in a difficult spot and acknowledged what he was doing. However, it deviated back into a very flirty, intense conversation that’s left me feeling more confused than before. I really don’t want to ruin things with Tom, but the attraction between me and Will is so intense that I’m starting to feel as though I’m not in control. How do I deal with my crush?
A: One thing that can help reframe unhelpful thinking when one is in the throes of a willpower-obliterating crush is to restate events with an emphasis on just who did what. I’ve noticed that whenever people talk about someone they’re feeling really wild about, they sometimes lose the ability to describe who did what: “It deviated back into a very flirty, intense conversation.” What deviated into flirtation? The conversation. Who was having the conversation? You and Will. Rather than end the conversation at “Thanks for the apology, I was also partly to blame, let’s talk later,” you both decided to give space to loop back into your mutual admiration and chose to start flirting. You two didn’t “end up” kissing, either—you decided to kiss each other with your brains and bodies. You’re now feeling confused, but instead of sharing that with your partner, you’ve decided to keep the bewildering, flirtatious end of your last conversation with Will a secret from him. Crushes are powerful, that’s definitely true, but they’re not irresistible forces of nature that mow down the human ability to make decisions.
My fear is that you’re setting up a situation where Will becomes all the more appealing for being forbidden. If you don’t want to ruin things with your boyfriend, talk to him honestly about your feelings, your concerns, and what you want out of this situation. Don’t have secret, off-the-books conversations with Will that are ostensibly about setting boundaries (“We shouldn’t kiss again”) but that are really about mutual titillation (“We really shouldn’t kiss again. God, it was so wrong, the last time we kissed. I feel like a terrible person … with a sexy, angst-ridden conflict.”) I can’t promise that you’ll be able to rebuild trust with Tom overnight, or that your feelings for Will are going to immediately dissipate, but if your goal here is to prioritize your primary relationship and figure out how to build a new kind of openness together that’s not just a morass of impulsive decisions and hurt feelings, then you need to drag your crush out in the open and expose it to plenty of light and air.
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Q. I accidentally poisoned my colleague: A few months ago, somebody started stealing my clearly labelled lunch from our common fridge at work. I immediately escalated with the office manager, sent a note to all my colleagues, and generally tried to discourage the behavior. But nothing seemed to have any effect. Finally, I got frustrated, and decided to add a nontoxic stain to my lunch box. Unfortunately, it turns out that my colleague “Bill” is violently allergic to the stain and had to be hospitalized after stealing my lunch. I feel terrible, but I’m also worried that I could lose my job or face other consequences if this is escalated internally and equally quite angry that this dirtbag thought it was OK to repeatedly steal from me in the workplace. Do I have any responsibility here? Should I raise this with HR? Or should I let sleeping dogs lie and hope it all passes over?
A: Ask a Manager had a very similar letter a year or so ago, although the letter writer in that situation didn’t add anything intentionally to their lunch to cause an allergic reaction. If your co-worker is in the hospital, you should consult a lawyer before saying anything to HR. In general, while having your lunch stolen is genuinely frustrating, you should have asked yourself, at the point of purchasing and applying a “nontoxic stain” to your sandwich, whether you were expending your energy and talents in a reasonable, healthy way. Especially because “nontoxic” does not necessarily mean “safe to eat.” Talk to a lawyer.
Q. Vacation rental breakdown: I have a question about vacation etiquette, specifically about the fairest way for friends to break down the cost of group travel. My husband and I are planning a trip with another couple and their teenager. In the past, we’ve booked two-bedroom accommodations with this couple, whose child, at the time, was fine to “bunk” in their room. We would then split the lodging cost 50-50. Now that their son is well into his teens, his parents requested an extra room so he has his own space during our trip. I totally understood and booked the lodging accordingly. Obviously, larger rentals cost more. This family is travel-savvy, which is why I am baffled that they only sent half of the total bill. I assumed that they’d cover two-thirds of the bill, since they needed the extra room.
I feel like it’s too late to ask for them to fork over more money. Next time, would I be out of line to lay out the specifics of the costs in advance? Am I being unreasonable in expecting friends to pay by the number of bedrooms they need?
A: It’s not too late. Just say, “Since this is a three-bedroom instead of our usual two-bedroom, your share of the bill comes to X instead of Y. When you get the chance, send over [remaining amount]. Thanks!”
Q. Generous neighbor: My neighbors are an older couple who I genuinely enjoy being friends with. The problem is that the husband gives me gifts every time I see him, which is often. It’s usually something free or inexpensive, like a pretty rock, paperback book, or something he made. But this week he gave me something that would be worth $40 if it was new (it is used and unsellable, but that’s how much he would have to pay to get a new one to use again himself).
I worry that he feels like he has to give me something, since I’ve done things for him like help him shower, dress, changed bandages for him, etc. I’m thinking about asking his wife whether she is even OK with him giving me so many things. I believe it would hurt his feelings if I brought it up with him or refused his gifts. I love these folks and don’t want to do the wrong thing. Should I ask his wife for her opinion? How could I word it so that I don’t hurt anyone or seem ungrateful?
A: I’m a little curious about some of the details of this situation! Is your neighbor’s wife usually not around when he’s either giving you these gifts or you’re rendering these (fairly personal) acts of assistance? My read on this letter is that you’re a little nervous that this attention may be borderline romantic, and you want to get her read on the situation because he’s trying to give you gifts under her radar. If that’s not the case, and you’re truly just worried he’s giving you these gifts out of a sense of obligation, I think you can let it go—it probably makes him feel more like you two are on equal footing, both giving each other little gifts or acts of service when you can, and preserving his sense of independence. But if you do feel uncomfortable with the constant gift-giving and want to make sure it’s not a secret his wife doesn’t know about, then the next time you’re with them both, just say: “Jim, I really appreciated the book you gave me last week, but please don’t feel like you have to get me something every time you see me—I’m perfectly happy just to enjoy both of your company.”
Q. Re: My daughter’s new friends: Strip the friendship with Claudia angst from the letter. The reality boils down to your daughter being unkind to people. You—or her father, or both—need to have a long talk with her about the evil of unkindness, and how it pains you to see her acting this way. You also have to strip away privileges from her if her behavior doesn’t change. Decide before talking to her what those privileges will be. Make this all about kindness in general. Do not bring Laura into the conversation at all.
A: My read is that the letter writer is working to shut down cruel and bullying behavior when it arises, but that talking back to her teachers, etc., is an ongoing problem. But I agree, it’s absolutely crucial to prioritize Maggie’s bullying and making sure it stops. Also, if the letter writer isn’t comfortable having the girls who lead the bullying over at the house, it’s fair to say they can’t spend the night. The letter writer may not be able to control who Maggie is friends with, but they can certainly have rules about the kind of behavior they will and won’t allow in the house.
Q. Unprofessional “friends”: Like a lot of folks, I have a side hustle in a creative field, and I do social media marketing. A few of my real-life acquaintances who also do creative work do the same thing. As a way of networking and building goodwill and support among local creatives, I followed (via my professional side-hustle social media accounts) their (also supposedly professional) social media accounts. And now I’m regretting it. These women are supposed to be running businesses or organizations, but their social media feeds are primarily selfies that show a lot of cleavage, full body shots in revealing clothes, and the few nonselfie posts are quotes about how a good man should treat you. They are more like the kind of profiles you’d see on dating sites—in fact one of these acquaintances recently griped on social media about how she gets so many dick pics and guys DMing her for booty calls. I just wanted to shake her and ask her, “Well, what do you expect?”
I really just want to unfollow them, but they’ll know. And I don’t want to offend them; they are both nice women that I have cordial relationships with. Should I say something to them? If so, how can I say it without coming across as judgmental? It’s not just that it makes me want to unfollow them; I’m sure they are driving clients away because of this.
A: If you need to mute them, you can do so; if you’d rather unfollow them, you should do it. If anyone were tone-deaf enough to ask you why you’d unfollowed them, you can always say something bland like, “I was getting overwhelmed with the number of accounts I was following and had to scale it back only to people in my particular field.”
It’s also worth mentioning that posting a picture of oneself fully dressed, whether in a body-conscious dress or a full ski suit, is not an invitation for other people to send a dick pic. The only invitation to send a dick pic is, “Please send me a picture of your dick at your earliest convenience.” Interrogate your own desire to shake these women. You are not certain they’re driving away clients because they post selfies; you want to offload your own discomfort by presenting it as something you’re sure lots of other people would share. You are being judgmental of them. Being judgmental is not always a bad thing and doesn’t make you a horrible monster, but in this case I don’t think your instinctive judgmental response should drive your behavior. Since it doesn’t sound like you’re close with these women, and you don’t work together, and they’ve never asked you for your professional advice, keep your opinions about how they dress or present themselves online to yourself and focus on your own business.
Q. Dog not welcome: I live several hours away from my family and travel to them for the holidays. My parents recently purchased a new house and told everyone that it would be dog-free. We also have a vacation house nearby that is rented out for parts of the year. My dog is my best friend; more like family than a pet. He is a rescue with kennel anxiety, and his normal sitter does not keep dogs over the holidays. I mentioned staying at the vacation house so that my dog could still be with me for the holidays. My dad quickly informed me that it is also not pet-friendly, holding me to the same rules as the complete strangers who rent it. I asked in a very straightforward way if they would be OK trading away time with me during one of my few annual opportunities to visit by enforcing this new policy, which would require me to find and pay for somewhere else to stay and then run back and forth to check on my dog. The answer was yes.
I feel incredibly hurt by this. Both of my siblings have children who are way more destructive than my old dog, who sleeps 16 hours a day, has never had an accident inside, and has never chewed anything up. My parents told me their dogsitting days are over, but I’ve never once asked them to keep my dog or even watch my dog when I have visited in the past. He goes with me wherever I go and has never been their responsibility.
They have kept my siblings’ dogs and children hundreds of times over the years. My very pragmatic partner was present during the conversation and was even taken aback by the coldness from my parents (I was in tears and they didn’t flinch). My partner told me that I could go with him to his family celebration, which is near where I live. My parents would be very upset if I did this, and I would miss out on spending time with other family members. One of my siblings wants to intervene on my behalf. I’m not sure if it is worth the potential family drama. My parents were very clear about their new priorities. I feel like my parents are being dismissive and cruel by banning my best friend from their home. Am I being overly sensitive?
A: My only sense that there might be something more going on beneath the surface is that line about your parents taking your siblings’ dogs “hundreds of times” over the years. Does this new policy also apply to them? If they’re applying it inconsistently, then I can understand why you feel singled out. But as much as you love your dog and consider him part of your family, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for your parents to feel a stronger connection to their own grandchildren than to your pet, nor do I think it’s unreasonable for them to say they don’t want to host pets along with their human guests.
When you say “we” have a vacation home, my read on it is that your parents own a vacation home, and you and your siblings have all been able to stay there (as well as at their main house) many times over the years. It sounds fairly generous of them, and I can understand they might feel a little exhausted after years of young kids and a variety of dogs roughhousing through their homes. Even if your dog is especially well-behaved, once they make one exception, it’ll be more difficult to keep from making others. I don’t see your parents’ decision as either dismissive or cruel, although if they have a habit of responding coldly when you exhibit powerful emotions, that may well be worth talking about in a separate conversation.
As for the holidays, I think you should either find another sitter who can take your dog or book a room at a nearby hotel that allows you to travel with him. You have at least a few weeks (or a few months, depending on the holiday) to make arrangements, which is a good thing. I don’t think you’re wrong to care deeply about your dog’s well-being, and if ultimately you decide you can’t make the trip this year because you need more time to find the right sitter, I think that’s a fair decision. But I don’t think you should decline to attend out of a sense of being unjustly treated, or to punish your parents for their perceived cruelty, either.
Q. While my brother is out to sea: My sister-in-law has a problem with the beer or two my brother takes to relax from working on a submarine and is threatening to divorce him while he’s out to sea. The bad thing is I am living with her, since I just moved out here for a job. She is constantly bagging on my brother. Life is miserable, and I don’t know what to do until my brother gets back. What would you recommend?
A: Start saving up for your own place and look for an apartment as soon as you’re able. In the meantime, if she tries to vent to you about your brother: “I’m really sorry you two are having a difficult time. I’m not comfortable discussing my brother’s marriage when he’s not around; I’m not available to talk about this.”
Q. Re: My daughter’s new friends: While they are working to help their respective daughters through this issue, both the letter writer and Claudia need to keep in mind that it is not mandatory that the girls be best friends, even though their mothers are. What is non-negotiable, however, is that they be civil to each other. (Nice would be better than civil, but maybe they can get back to that after the bullying is addressed.)
A: Yes, absolutely, although I’d stress that the civility/niceness needs to be addressed more on Maggie’s side than on Laura’s. Laura hasn’t had a problem being nice or civil, it doesn’t sound like.