Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Cause of death: Should I tell my family my sister’s real cause of death was an overdose and not natural causes? A quick Google search reveals the truth, but my parents and her children seem very comforted by the thought that she died of a heart attack, and it has been a terrible year of loss for our family. If so, how do I break the news?
A: I’m a little unsure as to how your sister’s cause of death was publicly released but never communicated to her immediate family. Is it possible that your parents were told but have chosen what seems to them a more comforting fiction? Regardless, if you think there’s a real chance that your parents simply don’t know the cause of your sister’s death, I think you can sit them down and share what you’ve learned from her public records. You can tell them that you’ve been anxious to bring it up, but since it’s publicly available information, you’d rather they hear it from you than anyone else that your sister died of an overdose and not a heart attack.
When it comes to her children, I think you should proceed with caution, especially if they’re still minors. Speak to your parents first, consult her partner or co-parent if she had one, and don’t rush to inform her children until you’ve had some time to discuss the best way to do it.
Q. My boyfriend’s sister is in love with me! My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years. I met his family early on at a holiday dinner, and his sister took an immediate liking to me. Since then, she has been obsessive. She tells all kinds of people how “amazing” I am, apropos of nothing. She’s told my boyfriend she’s had dreams about us breaking up. She invites herself over constantly, pestering my partner with questions about how soon I will be home, what my work schedule is like, how I like certain foods prepared, etc.
As a queer woman myself, I interpret all this as “Baby gay’s first crush,” but she aggressively identifies as heterosexual and becomes sheepish when my own sexuality comes up. The attention makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and my boyfriend is pained that his sister is struggling alone. Members of his family have even remarked how intense her feelings appear to be for me. How can I help this girl realize herself and also let her down as gently as possible?
A: These two goals—to 1) help her realize her own sexuality and 2) to set a firm boundary about the type of relationship you want to have with her—are mutually exclusive. I don’t think anyone really wants to hear their crush say, “Hey, I don’t feel the same way, but I would be happy to shepherd you through the coming-out process.” Whatever her sexuality may be, she’ll derive better, less-crushing support from friends she doesn’t have such strong feelings for (or from reading, journaling, therapy, support groups, whatever).
You can absolutely tell her, kindly but firmly, that you’re not available to have the kind of friendship that she wants, specifically that she needs to stop inviting herself over and telling your boyfriend that she dreams about your breakup. Your boyfriend, for his part, can tell her to stop asking questions about your work schedule and pet dishes. But don’t send mixed messages by asking her to take a step back from your personal life while also trying to get more involved in her sexual self-determination. She will likely be hurt by this rebuff, but it’s a necessary and important hurt. You don’t need to let yourself feel uncomfortable without speaking up for another three years, and it will ultimately benefit her to learn when she’s coming on too strong.
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Q. Appropriate Christmas gift? My brother was adopted at 3 days old, and he is now 18. I struggle to buy gifts for him. Most of what he wants—band equipment—is outside of my price range. I thought it might be nice to get him a DNA-testing kit, like 23andMe. Is this in good taste, given his adoption? I should mention that he and I have a tumultuous relationship, thanks to our 7-year age difference. I just thought it would be nice to get him something that could show his family history.
A: This seems a little risky! Given that you two have a tumultuous relationship, and the possibility that this gift could highlight his adoptive status in a way that’s painful (not to mention it doesn’t sound like he’s expressed an interest in learning more about his genetic background or biological family), I think there’s real potential for this one to misfire. Why not offer him a gift card to a music-equipment store? He can use it toward something he really wants, while you can set the amount for something you can afford.
Q. Solar-powered problems: We recently moved to a rural area, where we have struggled to fit in with our neighbors. We have worked hard to be friendly with our neighbors even though we don’t always have much in common with them. We bring them poinsettias and cookies at Christmas, stop and chat whenever they are outside, and are generally friendly and cheerful.
We recently filed a request with our municipality to put solar panels on our roof and build a shed on our property with more panels to completely offset our energy usage. Our neighbors all received copies of the plans in the mail. When we showed up to the meeting at which our request would be voted on, we found out that one of our neighbors, “Bart,” was so incensed that he got more than 20 people to sign a petition against our request (including some who don’t live on our street) and had a mob ready to testify that we are menaces who keep large trash piles, conspire against others, and can’t wait to destroy the view of the countryside with our shed. None of this is true! Bart’s son “Brett” wrote an even more hurtful letter where he took pictures of our home during remodeling to illustrate the point that we are perpetual slobs.
Prudie, Bart is our next-door neighbor. We stop and chat at least once a week, and instead of talking to us about the shed or the laundry list of complaints he has with us, he worked to turn the neighborhood against us. While we felt like we didn’t fit in before, now we really feel paranoid in our own community. I can’t get over the betrayal. How do we even interact with this person in the future?
A: You tackle it head-on. The next time you see Bart in public, tell him, “Bart, we were surprised to hear that you were so unhappy about our remodeling and proposed solar panels at the meeting, since you’ve never mentioned it to us before. If there’s something you need to talk to us about, we’re always available, and we’d like to try to work things out in person whenever possible.” After that conversation, you have two options. One is to continue being friendly and open, dropping off cookies and poinsettias every now and again, hoping that in so doing you are heaping coals upon Bart’s head. The other is to scale back how much time and energy you spend trying to court your unfriendly neighbors and confine yourself to the occasional wave and 30-second exchange of pleasantries. Whichever option you choose, as long as you can divorce yourself from the outcome, I think you’ll be better off. That is to say, if you scale back, don’t think of it as “punishing” your neighbors for having failed to match your kindness but as an attempt to accept that they’re not interested in being especially close, and focus your energy elsewhere. Or, if you continue being generous and effervescent, don’t think of it as a redoubled attempt to win them over—think of it as simply demonstrating the kind of neighbor you want to be regardless of whether anyone else wants to reciprocate.
Q. Re: Cause of death: We were tempted to do the same recently when we realized: 1) The truth is out there and easy to find, and 2) the people we were trying to shield would have been pretty angry to find out we were lying to them. In the end, when we told them the truth, the response was “Yeah, I figured.” Do what is right, not what is easy. Your heart will tell you which. Best of luck on this journey—it is difficult on so many levels.
A: Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m so sorry you’ve lost someone to an overdose too—it’s devastating.
Q. Outsourcing kids: My parents have become full-time foster parents, specializing in older kids. I am proud of them, but they make me uncomfortable. Several of their older kids have aged out of the system, and my parents have put pressure on me to take them in and hire them. I let one young woman move in with me. (My parents raised her from the age of 15.) She robbed my house with her boyfriend and then trashed it. Since then, I have given a few more some part-time work. Most of them don’t show up or quit without notice. Only one has worked out in the past few years. This has been a constant cycle, with my parents plying me with guilt about how this next one “is different” and just needs a chance. How do I get them to stop? They think “No” is a starting-off point for a conversation.
A: I think the reason your parents think “No” is a starting-off point is that, on this particular subject, you’ve never actually said “No” and stuck to your decision. Historically, “No” has always been a starting-off point because you’ve continually given in whenever they start guilting you. If you have trouble ending conversations with your parents, then it might be helpful to write down a script and ask a friend or two to hold you accountable to your decision not to hire or take in any more of your parents’ foster children. Keep it simple: “It hasn’t worked for me to manage my business based on your kids, and I’m not going to be able to do it anymore.” Don’t try to go into detail about why it isn’t working or to try to convince them to see things from your point of view, because it sounds like your parents have boundless energy for arguing you into changing your mind. Just tell them that, from now on, the answer has to be no but that you wish them and their foster kids all the best. If they try to bring the issue up again, say, “The answer is still no.” If they persist, say, “I’m going to cut this conversation short, since you already know my answer. Let’s talk again some other time.” That’s all. There’s no magic to it; you’ll just have to do the uncomfortable work of occasionally hanging up on your parents or letting them say things like “We’re so sad you’ve decided to stop helping our family” without giving in. Those are manipulative tactics, not objective reality about your willingness to help your fellow human beings. But the only way you can stop hiring these kids or having them move them in with you is to make a decision and stick to it.
Q. Uncooperative sister: My mom recently said that she wants a photo of her four kids (me, my brother, my middle sister, and my younger sister) for Christmas. It’s the only thing she wants. I told my siblings about this and everyone agreed to get together in two weeks to do a portrait—except for my youngest sister. Initially, she said that she would rather do it for Mother’s Day and that she would like to lose weight. She was given every opportunity to say she had to work or that she had another commitment, but eventually she said she’s just not willing. She got very defensive and nasty, and she finally said she “can’t do it—and I don’t have to explain myself to you!” She is very controlling and won’t do anything that’s not her idea or that she’s not spearheading. My siblings said we should do it without her.
The photo is what my mom wants, and she has helped all of us beyond belief in the past few years, especially my two sisters. My youngest sister nearly lost her house twice, and Mom bailed her out. Mom is retired, on a very limited income, and my sisters have drained her financially.
It is unlikely that my sister will be happy with her weight—or anything else, for that matter—five months from now for Mother’s Day. Are we awful if we do the photo without her? I’m conflicted. I don’t feel like my sister should control everything and ruin it for anyone who wants to do a photo for Mom. However, it would be very awkward to have a “family photo” if she’s missing. (By the way, I’m a photographer, so the gift will only cost the expense of ordering any prints.)
A: Woof. The amount of energy your sister has been able to get the rest of the family to expend on her is pretty remarkable. Your options are, as I see it, either to get an “awkward” family photo of most of the siblings, or to never get your mother a photo at all. I think you should get the nicest picture you can of whatever siblings are available and present it to your mother. Prepare for your sister, at that point, to throw a fit about not being “included.” Generally speaking, I think you’ll be better off if you resign yourself to the fact that your sister is going to choose the most exhausting and unreasonable response to any given situation whenever possible, that nothing you do can prevent or mitigate it, and that it’s not in your power to fix. You can have sympathy for her struggles with body image, as that can be difficult for anyone, while also saying, “I hear you, and we won’t force you to participate. But this is what Mom’s asked for, so we’re going ahead with it.”
Q. Re: My boyfriend’s sister is in love with me! The letter writer is being unduly kind. If this were her boyfriend’s brother, it would be stalking.
A: Yeah, the asking incessant questions about the letter writer’s work schedule and when she’ll be home from work definitely goes beyond the lines of even enthusiastic friendliness. My hope is that she’ll back off once the letter writer and her boyfriend make it clear that she needs to stop. But if she doesn’t stop, then they’ll need to treat it seriously.
Q. Christmas anxiety: I am 16 and the odd one out in my mom’s family. All my aunts and uncles talk over me or lecture me. One uncle keeps insisting I am on the baseball team because I am “so tall.” I run track. They don’t know anything about my life. I hate visiting. All my cousins are 6 and under. I get stuck babysitting the entire week; if I try to go for a run or read a book, my mom yells at me for “isolating myself.” My mom is always stressed when we visit. My dad and his new girlfriend want to take me to California for Christmas. I really want to go, but I am afraid to tell my mom. How do I do this without hurting her?
A: I’m not sure if you can go without hurting your mother’s feelings at least a little bit, but I think it’s OK if your mother is a little miffed! It sounds like maybe you’ve gone to her side of the family every year since your parents split, so I think it’s reasonable to ask to switch this year: “Dad and [Girlfriend] have asked me to go to California with them for Christmas this year, and I’d really like to go. I wanted to talk about it with you in advance so we could have time to plan, but since I haven’t spent Christmas with him in a long time, I’d like to go with them.”
Q. Sister twister: My younger sister “Dianne” and I are very close. Several months ago, Dianne had a major falling out with “Ruth,” her lifelong best friend, and they no longer speak. Ruth has attempted to mend fences, but Dianne has shut her out completely. Although Ruth and I aren’t especially close, we do have a relationship independent of Dianne, and I frequently interact with Ruth through my job. I’m getting married soon, and Dianne doesn’t want Ruth to be at the wedding. That’s OK with me, but I think Ruth expects to be invited, and she would be invited if not for Dianne. I’m afraid that because we’ve maintained a friendly relationship independent of Dianne and their fight, Ruth will be surprised and hurt when her invite never arrives. I do care about her, but Dianne will always be my priority. How do I communicate all this to Ruth without doing further damage?
A: I’d be surprised if Ruth expected to be invited—if one has suffered a recent and serious estrangement from a lifelong best friend, then it should naturally follow that one would not be cheerfully invited to major events by that friend’s relatives. I don’t think you need to explain anything to Ruth; generally speaking, I’m of the opinion that not receiving a wedding invitation does not require an additional explanation, because it draws unnecessary attention to the obvious. If you’re friendly with Ruth when you have to interact at work, then you’ve discharged your responsibility toward her. Pulling her aside and trying to explain why you didn’t invite her would not provide her with any new information—she already knows she’s fallen out with Dianne—and would unnecessarily entangle you in their relationship.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
Our daughter “Amanda” lives in another state and has been married to “Jacob” for several years. Theirs is an open relationship, and I have always known that. My husband, however has kept his head in the sand regarding this. My daughter has a boyfriend, “Tom,” whom Jacob knows about and has a great friendship with. They are all planning to come to our home this Christmas, but my husband insists that Tom (who has visited us previously) is not welcome. Do I tell our daughter, son-in-law, and daughter’s boyfriend to make other holiday plans? My opinion is that they are all consenting adults, there are no children involved, and always behave appropriately in public.
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