Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q: Solo hiker: I enjoy hiking alone sometimes. It is meditative, and I enjoy controlling the pace and route. I think I take necessary precautions by choosing well-traveled paths, letting someone know about my plans, and picking trails that I am certain I can handle.
My boyfriend thinks it is unsafe to hike alone and begs me not to do it anymore. He doesn’t hike as much as I do, so I think he is being irrationally paranoid. I often ask friends first if they’d like to hike with me, but they’re not always available. He says he will hike with me so that I don’t go alone, but hiking with him is not the same experience. He can’t always keep up with my pace and doesn’t enjoy it very much. I’d rather go alone than worry about whether he is having a good time.
I’ve agreed to bring pepper spray with me as a compromise, but he won’t let it go. And I can’t let it go either. I’m angry because it feels like he thinks I’m being stupid and reckless. And it feels like he is trying to take away something that I love. I feel like I will go less often if I have to wait for someone to be available and willing to join me. Am I being irresponsible for insisting that this isn’t reckless behavior? Can I do anything to assure him that I’ll be fine?
A: I think you’ve done more than enough to assure your boyfriend that you’ll be fine, between sticking to well-traveled paths, always keeping a friend informed of your whereabouts, knowing your limits, and now bringing pepper spray along. At a certain point, you have to weigh the interests of safety against the interests of having a relatively free and enjoyable life. You would likely be safest if you stayed at home on the couch—but that’s not what you want.
At this point it’s clear that your boyfriend’s worrying is not going to be resolved by further reassurance or accommodation on your part. It’s a compulsion that he needs to find strategies for dealing with on his own. “I get that you’re worried, and I’ve done everything I can to make sure I hike safely. At this point, there’s nothing more I can do beyond giving up hiking altogether, which I’m not going to do. I don’t want to spend all my time on the trail reassuring you, because that would defeat the point of getting outside and enjoying nature. I’m going to go hiking, and I’ll talk to you when I get back.”
Q. Funereal plagiarism: I have a friend who plagiarized a large portion of a eulogy and then posted it on Facebook as if they were his own words. He received compliments and accepted them without referencing the original writer. Should I challenge him or just keep my mouth shut?
A: I suppose this depends somewhat on the stakes—were these general words of wisdom from a public eulogy for a famous person, or was this about someone you both knew who recently died? Whatever the situation, since this is a friend of yours, I think you should bring the subject up in person, rather than in the comments of the post itself, where discussion is much likelier to devolve into a fight.
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Q. Gifts: Our son has announced he will be bringing his girlfriend and her four children to our home for Christmas, as their father canceled on them. We were pleased and asked what small gifts (lotions, candy, socks, etc.) we could put under the tree. My son told me, point-blank, that he expected “his kids” to get the exact same gifts as our other grandchildren, his sister’s kids. Our daughter has three children and has bought them rather extravagant gifts this year (video games, a dirt bike, and expensive clothes). My husband and I are on a fixed income, and our contributions are limited to secondary items like helmets. There has been bad blood between our daughter and son before. She and her husband both make an extremely good living, while her brother has struggled career-wise. He has made comments about her “showing off” when she does things like pay for our new roof. My daughter is very proud of her life and has raised three terrific kids. She is also a generous person. A few years ago, our neighbor had their house burn down on Christmas. They and their son stayed with us. My daughter’s family took them shopping for clothes and gave them older laptops and other items.
We haven’t told our daughter yet about the Christmas changes. We haven’t met the girlfriend or her children, either. How should we talk to our son about this?
A: “We can’t afford big gifts for the kids because we’re on a fixed income, and this is a relatively recent holiday plan. We can’t wait to meet them, and we’re so glad you’re going to be able to spend Christmas with us. What kind of cookies do they like? We’ll make sure to have plenty on hand.” I’m sure it must be difficult for the kids having their father cancel Christmas plans barely a month out, so anything you can do to make them feel welcomed and special will likely be appreciated. But don’t spend too much time trying to massage your son’s long-standing resentment of his sister. Just be honest about your budget and then move on. “Sorry, we can’t afford that” will need to be your go-to.
Q. Blame it on the alcohol?: I’ve recently rekindled a relationship with an old flame whom I care for deeply. We get along great, our political beliefs line up perfectly, and our physical chemistry is out of this world phenomenal. When we first got together, he abstained from drinking, smoking, and drugs, because there were substance abuse problems in his family. He moved for school, and we separated because of communication issues stemming from the distance. Somewhere along the way, he started drinking and smoking to cope with stress and anxiety. He now goes through two to three handles a week. I’ve gotten my own problems with alcohol under control, and now I’m more of a go-out-once-or-twice a month type, and I don’t keep booze around the house. He has said he wants to quit but “isn’t ready yet.” I can’t—and don’t want to—force him to change for me, but our current lifestyles aren’t compatible. I would love for this to work. Do I have to be the bad guy and break it off before we get more serious?
A: Yes. It’s not “being the bad guy” to acknowledge reality, and you have enough warning signs here to tell you that your boyfriend’s drinking isn’t going to get better anytime soon. He’s worried about his own susceptibility to alcohol abuse due to his family history, he drinks to cope with stress, he’s averaging a huge number of drinks per week, he wants to quit but won’t. All the physical chemistry in the world can’t make up for active alcoholism, and since you realize you can’t get him to change for you, the best thing you can do is call things off so you can make space in your life for a guy you have great chemistry with, one who shares your values and doesn’t have a drinking problem.
Q. Trapped and afraid: I started working at a family-owned restaurant a year ago. At first things were great, but my boss has become unhealthily dependent on me. He has no concept of boundaries between employees and bosses. I’ve been told four times that he would marry me if he were my age and single. I’ve been blown “thank you” kisses, kissed on the head and hand (though he realized he was wrong after I cried in the bathroom), compared favorably to his wife, and told I’m the only one he depends on, that he sees me as a daughter, sister, teacher, and friend and wants me to be close and relaxed with him. I feel like he’s made me his personal manic pixie dream girl, only he doesn’t have any sexual interest in me—thank God. I’m not the only one. He’s kissed other men and women and said he’d marry three other people. He gets hostile when he thinks employees don’t like him, especially when they are leaving. Recently, he has become paranoid that his employees are planning to betray him, once waking my friend up on the phone to interrogate him, and asking me multiple times if I’m planning something.
I’m afraid of him, Prudence. I’m afraid to write this letter, and that he’ll become angry if he finds out I wrote it. I’m afraid that if I leave in a conventional way, the abuse he’s going to put me through will be so bad that I’ll snap and attempt suicide in front of him. I’ve already been self-harming and plan on escalating it from scratching to cutting. I know I should be in therapy, but I can’t afford it on what I make and have no insurance. I don’t know what to do. My friend is planning on reporting him, but I’m afraid I’m stuck here.
A: I think you should quit as soon as possible. If there is anyone else in your life you can ask for financial help while you look for a new job, please do so, but the cost this job is taking on your mental and emotional health is so high that I think it’s important to leave as soon as you can. If you’re worried that he’ll try to retaliate, then you don’t have to give two weeks’ notice and you can block his calls as soon as you leave the premises. If the fear of getting a bad reference is keeping you there, I think it’s important to acknowledge that he’d likely never give you a good reference, no matter how carefully you behaved around him, in order to keep you close. If working with this man every day is increasing your suicidal thoughts and causing you to escalate the methods of self-harm you use, then getting away from him should come before trying to find a therapist, I think.
Q. Separate beds for the holidays: My wife of 25 years and I have decided, mutually, to separate. For boring financial reasons, it’s best for us to hold off on divorcing or moving out until next year, meaning we still live together, but in separate bedrooms (kids are out of college/living independently). Over Christmas, we are staying with a close friend at her new home in another state. I’m wondering what the etiquette is regarding separate bedrooms. Both my wife and I would like to ask her if we can sleep separately, but I’m not sure how much guest space she has, and I also would rather not go into the details of our separation with our friend, as we have not told anyone besides our kids yet. First of all, is it reasonable for an amicable, still-married couple to even make this request? Second of all, how should we ask her without a) getting too personal (anything beyond “we’re separating”) or b) imposing on her as a hostess? If we have to share a bed, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly preferable not to.
A: If you don’t want to get too personal with your hostess, then I don’t think you can tell her that you and your wife are effectively separated. That’s pretty personal, I’m afraid. But she’s a close friend—why not get a little personal? I can understand that you don’t want the holidays to devolve into a postmortem of your relationship, and it may be slightly uncomfortable for your friend to navigate having a new sort of friendship with both of you, but if you two are staying friends, and you still have a solid month to prepare before Christmas, I think you should talk about it with her now.
Q: Re: Gifts: It’s fine that your daughter can give her children extravagant gifts at Christmas, but those gifts should not be opened in front of these other children. The letter writer should talk to their daughter, who sounds reasonable and generous. Surely she doesn’t want her children to receive expensive gifts in front of other children who will not be getting the same. The kids can open their big gifts from their parents at home, before or after the celebration at the grandparents’. Then on Christmas morning, all the kids can enjoy smaller gifts of similar value (candy, books, socks, etc.) together.
A: I’ve gotten a few other letters to the same effect, and I think that’s a reasonable and thoughtful compromise. All the kids can open their parents’ presents at their parents’ home, and then save the grandparents’ presents for the big family get-together. Makes sense to me.
Q. Choosing between my roommates: I currently live with two roommates. “Sarah” is a close relative who has many annoying habits, but I’ve known her forever. “Patricia” is an old friend of Sarah’s who I haven’t known long but is a fine roommate. Recently, Patricia did something terrible that she feels genuinely awful about but can’t make amends for, and it’s driven a wedge between them. Now Sarah wants to move to a new place, just me and her. I love this house and don’t want to move, especially not to live alone with Sarah, but if I choose to stay here with Patricia, Sarah will rightfully be angry and make family gatherings awkward. If I could I’d happily live alone—I’m tired of drama—but that’s a financial impossibility in our area. What can I do?
A: I’m genuinely curious to know what Patricia did that she can’t ever make amends for, but that apparently doesn’t give you pause when it comes to continuing to live with her. That seems like a relevant detail! Do you think of it as unforgivable, too, or do you think Sarah is overreacting? If it’s the latter, let Sarah know that while you appreciate she needs space, you’re happy with your living situation and won’t be joining her, and let her be angry with you for a while. If not, you could always look for a new apartment with roommates who are relative strangers to you. There’s no guarantee there won’t be drama there too, of course—living with other people usually means you’re in for at least a little—but at least you won’t have long-standing family and friendship ties making you feel quite so constrained.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone—see you next week.
Re: “The Men Never Help With Thanksgiving Cleanup,” a reader replies: I wanted to share an innovation my family developed—unlikely to be unique—a few years ago in regards to cleaning up after Thanksgiving or large dinner parties. We ask every attendee, including ourselves, to put $5 in a jar before dinner. After dinner, the jar is offered as incentive to anyone who wants to clean. For us, it’s usually the teenagers who are more than willing to do it for $50 or so of extra spending money for Black Friday.
I have a girlfriend I love very much. I have moderate depression and anxiety, and she has supported me for the entirety of our relationship; she’s a really excellent partner and person. We technically have an open relationship, but neither of us has acted on it yet, so we talk a lot about how we’re feeling and any worries we have. I’ve never had this kind of “check-in” before, and it feels great.
I also have three fantastic housemates, two of whom are in a couple. Before they started dating (also before I started dating my current partner), I had really strong feelings for one of them and had to work through a lot of sadness and jealousy when I heard about their relationship. Recently my feelings have resurfaced in full force, along with some feelings for the other half of the couple. I am often hit with waves of sadness and/or jealousy when I see them together, even if we’re all hanging out. Sometimes I think about what it would have looked like if I’d ended up with the friend I first liked, but mostly now it’s more wanting to be part of the couple, too—wanting to be around them, be together, be included (and yes, I’d really like to kiss both of them!).
I’ve spoken to my girlfriend about this a few times—not because I think anything is likely to happen, but because the feelings are overwhelming and I don’t want to feel like I’m keeping something from her. She’s been very supportive, and we’ve also talked about how it makes her feel (it doesn’t change the way I feel for her, I’m not going to act on anything without talking it over with her, etc.). I have a therapist, too, and I’ve brought it up there, because it’s taking up a lot of mental energy right now, energy I don’t have. It’s so hard to live with these feelings, but this is the best home I’ve had as an adult by a mile, and I desperately don’t want to lose it. Nor do I want to tell them and risk making a friendship very, very weird. And there’s only so many times I can talk about it with my therapist without getting bored of the sound of my own voice! Sometimes I think I don’t want it to go away, anyway; I don’t always have a lot of feelings with depression, so there’s something nice about having these intense emotions, even if they’re hard to handle.
What’s my move here? Is there one?
Read what Prudie had to say.
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