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, all! Let’s chat.
Q. Can’t I just stay in the closet?: I’m a woman in my 30s who is happily married to a wonderful man. After many years of wrestling with it and denying my feelings, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m bisexual. My question is, do I need to come out? As a lifelong ally, I understand the importance of visibility in the bi community, but I’m an incredibly private person. I don’t like telling other people anything regarding my romantic and sexual attractions. If I opened up about something like this, I suspect it would prompt questions and confuse many people in my life. My husband knows and is completely fine with however I choose to proceed. Do I have an obligation to tell anyone else? To help erase misunderstandings and misconceptions about what bisexuality is?
A: You do not need to do anything! You are not personally and solely responsible for combating misconceptions about bisexuality, and you can certainly challenge said misconceptions whenever you encounter them without coming out. You know who you are, and you’ve been able to talk about it with your partner, which is the most important thing. It might help to ask yourself periodically, “What would be my goals in coming out? What might I gain from letting other people in my life know this about me?” If the answer continues to be “Not much,” then you can set it aside; if at some other point your answer changes, then your relationship to disclosure might change too. But let the focus be on what you seek to get out of coming out, rather than what you think you owe other people.
Q. Bad joke: My boyfriend has an off-color sense of humor that often comes off abrasively. He made a joke about a friend’s unplanned pregnancy as a “marriage trap.” This was a serious issue in the relationship, and the joke didn’t go over so well. My sister told my boyfriend to shut up and that he wasn’t as funny as he thought he was. They ended up fighting. Both refuse to apologize. My boyfriend calls my sister uptight, while my sister told me if my boyfriend can’t read the room, he needs to shut up for once. My friends have taken my sister’s side, and I feel like the one everyone is ganging up on.
A: Your boyfriend was rude, insensitive, and obnoxious, and other people are angry with him as a result. I’m not sure why your sister should apologize to him for calling him on it, especially when you agree that he often makes jokes that other people don’t find funny. If he refuses to apologize despite having spoken cruelly and casually about someone else’s unplanned pregnancy, and other people are angry with him for it, I think that’s to be expected. The question that faces you is not “How can I convince the people in my life not to be angry with my boyfriend when he acts like a jerk?” but “Why am I dating a guy with a lousy sense of humor who can’t respond well to criticism?”
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Q. Do I keep a friend or a roommate?: My friend moved in with me back in July. We’re both queer girls in a small town, and I had hoped for the best, but she claims to not understand cleaning, pays less of the bills, has the largest bedroom, and has now decided I need to schedule times for my partner to come over in order to accommodate her discomfort with being a third wheel. At this point I don’t think I care for her as a person. Should I accept our friendship is no longer viable and try to be a tolerant roommate instead?
A: People often talk about striking up a romantic relationship as the biggest way to potentially ruin a friendship, but I think becoming roommates is a way more dangerous prospect. Many a lovely friendship has died upon the realization that the friend who’s so charming and generous at your weekly lunches never replaces the empty toilet paper tube or steals all your yogurt. I think you’re right to revise some of your expectations, and to consider a successful week one in which you’re able to agree upon your mutual household responsibilities and don’t get in each other’s way. I will say, though, that it’s not unreasonable for her to want to set some limits in how often your partner comes over, especially if your partner often spends the night. It can be frustrating to feel like you’ve picked up an unofficial third roommate when someone you live with is dating someone. Setting up formal “partner visiting hours” might be a bit much, but I do think it’s a good idea to talk about how often your partner visits and what times of the week or day you can both agree on as guest-free hours.
Q. Dogs gone: My mother and my sister have turned into borderline animal hoarders. They have “saved” six dogs between them—large, unmanageable dogs that have destroyed the backyard, including my late father’s prized garden, and reduced the downstairs to a war zone. Everything from the tables to the drywall has been gnawed on. I invite them both to my home for the holidays but refuse to let them bring their animals. I offer to pay for boarding but half the time only one will visit. I am usually good at shrugging off the passive-aggressive comments about how much I love my floors and furniture.
My husband and I are transitioning his 12-year-old daughter into living with us full time. Her mother chose to chase a man halfway across the country, but the courts wouldn’t let her drag her daughter along. She left, but she let her daughter pick out a puppy to “remember her by.” We were not aware of this until my stepdaughter showed up with a puppy in her arms. We kept the puppy. It is a small dog, and my stepdaughter has been good about taking care of it.
When I confided in my sister, her immediate answer was “Well, now you have no excuse to keep our dogs away.” I told her no. She threw a fit, and I sharply told her she wasn’t a child like my stepdaughter and her dogs are dirty, destructive creatures. She hung up on me. Neither my sister nor my mother is taking my calls. Part of me is relieved and welcomes a quiet holiday, but I do love them and don’t want to cut them permanently out of my life. How do I strike a good balance?
A: It might be a good idea to wait until the holidays are over so that everyone has the chance to settle down (and spend the holidays with as many or as few animals as they choose). This will also take some of the pressure off of coming to an understanding. You can tell your sister that you’re sorry you spoke so sharply to her and that you understand how much she loves her animals, but that your “no big dogs” policy still stands. If she wants to try to get into a back-and-forth about how the existence of your stepdaughter’s puppy requires you to give her dogs equal space, you can remind her that you’re not looking to get into an argument or to set up the same rules of engagement for an abandoned 12-year-old as for your adult relatives. It may be that you can have future holiday meals out at a restaurant or accept that you’ll only get to see them every other year. People can be more than a little sensitive about their pets—all the more so when their relationship to their pets is “no boundaries, no rules”—so I wouldn’t be surprised if even a gentle, loving conversation with your sister and mother still resulted in some hurt feelings. Remind them that this isn’t a referendum on how they treat their pets and that you can respect how strongly they feel about their dogs.
Q. Re: Can’t I just stay in the closet?: Are you me? Because I was 36 when I realized this too. My husband’s response when I told him was, “Yeah. I already knew.” I struggle with this, too. For me personally, I handle it on a case-by-case basis, and no one is ever really shocked when I tell them. But yeah, I wonder that same thing, does the whole world really need to know?
A: That’s why I think the reframing is important—coming out is not something an individual owes the world, but something an individual might do in order to foster their own freedom and happiness. It’s not about whether the world “needs” to know or not. It’s about what you need to be well.
Q. Full disclosure?: I’m in my early 20s and in the past year decided to cut off contact with my father, who is emotionally manipulative. I haven’t lived with him since I was a small child, so we have never been close. I am significantly less stressed since going no-contact and I feel it was a great decision for my mental health. The problem is, I have two half brothers on my dad’s side, aged 9 and 12. I haven’t seen or spoken with them in almost a year. I have another brother who is my age, “Matt,” who sees them regularly and has mentioned that they miss me. We live in the same city, and I could see my little brothers without having to talk to my dad if Matt were to pick them up and take them to his house for dinner or board games.
I haven’t taken him up on this yet because I don’t know how to talk to them about the past year. How do I talk to my half-brothers about my dislike for their father? How do I tell them that I still love them, but no, I won’t be at Christmas or be able to meet their new pet fish, since I don’t plan on going to that house again? They have lived with him their whole lives. Most of my issues with my father date back to the few years after my parents’ divorce, which I’m sure the boys don’t know the details of. I don’t want to negatively affect their view of their father, but I also don’t want them to see me as creating unnecessary pain in the family. Also relevant, I’m moving to another country in 10 months and won’t be around much after that besides over the phone.
A: Since this is a situation with a 10-month expiration date and your half-brothers are young enough that it might be difficult for them to process the nuance of your relationship with your father after his divorce, I think you should focus on re-establishing your relationship with them right now and keep your answers about why you can’t see them at their house (assuming that they even ask) broad. You can say that your relationship with your dad is complicated and that for now it’s easier to meet at Matt’s house, then stress how much you’ve missed them and how good it is to see them again. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’re reading or watching or playing these days, and focus on rebuilding your relationship before you have to leave the country. There will be time for more complex conversations about your father when they’re older.
Q. Family home: A few years back my brother and his wife took ownership of the family house, which has a mortgage but also $200,000 in equity. The rest of the siblings were OK and didn’t ask for a share because my brother and his wife would be caring for Dad. I recently found out that they are charging him substantial monthly rent and a share of the yearly taxes. They don’t need this and are saving the money he pays in their personal account. This was never discussed or disclosed and would not have been found acceptable. Should we ask him to stop or tell Dad to stop paying them?
A: I’m not sure! Is your father competent to make his own financial decisions? Or was he a few years ago? If so, and if he knew that your brother was both taking ownership of the house and charging him rent, then it might not be within your purview to tell your father to stop. Did either your brother or wife quit their jobs or scale back their hours in order to care for your father? How much would you be paying a full-time caregiver or nursing home if your brother and his wife weren’t looking after your father, and is it at all commensurate with what they’re charging him now? I can imagine a number of scenarios in which this situation isn’t necessarily predatory. That’s not to say that your brother and his wife couldn’t possibly be taking advantage of your father and the rest of your family, simply that there’s not quite enough information here for me to make a ruling.
That doesn’t mean you can’t convene a family meeting and revisit the terms of the agreement, especially since the rest of you weren’t given the full details of the financial arrangement. You can ask questions and discuss alternatives. Are you willing, for example, to care for you father yourself, or to contribute communally to paying for professional caregivers? But have the meeting first, and try to come to a decision as a group before asking your father to stop paying rent or telling your brother what you think he should do next.
Q. Re: Dogs gone: It seems the energy level of these dogs is an important part of the conversation to have with the letter writer’s sister. Even a well-behaved dog that is boisterous would be difficult to welcome as a guest, so the distinction between a small, behaved dog and a large, boisterous one is important.
A: Yes, if the letter writer’s sister is at all able to hear a diplomatic response, that might be their best strategy—”It’s not just about dogs, it’s about the difference between a small, low-energy dog and a big, high-energy one.” Said sister doesn’t seem to have responded well in the past to reasonable limits and explanations, but we must always live in hope!
Q. Holiday gifting woes: Every year, my wife and I get together with her closest friends to exchange gifts around the holidays. This year, one of the friends is hosting and has invited several people who we normally wouldn’t exchange gifts with (some other members of the group might but definitely not all of them). The host didn’t provide any guidelines on gifts (e.g., “No gifts, this is just a get-together”), so we suggested a white elephant gift exchange to curtail any potential awkwardness. But at least one attendee has already purchased individual gifts for everyone. How do we handle this? If we bring gifts for everyone, it might be awkward if they don’t bring us gifts (that we certainly wouldn’t expect, of course). If we don’t and the opposite happens, we’d feel terrible. And, any guidelines on curtailing all gifting next year without sounding like jerks? Everyone is in a different income bracket or living situation, and we think we’ve aged out of this particular tradition.
A: Call your friend who’s hosting and ask for clarification, explaining that some of the attendees have already purchased individual gifts and you want to make sure you don’t leave somebody out. If your friend is totally resistant to living up to their responsibility as host and insists, “No, whatever, no need to bring gifts, even though I know that at least some people are definitely bringing some,” and you’re not able to get traction on your gift exchange idea, I think your best option is to purchase something relatively inexpensive for everyone so that you’re not showing up empty-handed.
This is why having guidelines is important! “No guidelines” is not a neutral position, especially when you’re breaking with previous tradition. It often means that a number of different people are going to make different assumptions, and it is not as chill as some people think!
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