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. Body image: My wife is well-endowed and skinny but is ashamed of her body. We’ve been married 30 years and now have an empty nest. I’m trying to spark a little fire and honestly I want to enjoy her body. I have bought her some low-cut shirts and dresses and have told her it would make me happy if she would occasionally wear them, like once in a while on a Friday night. She refuses to even try them on. She says she will buy her own clothing, but it has been about a year since I first asked her and she’s done nothing. It’s like having a fabulous bottle of wine put on the table every night and being told you can’t drink it. Thoughts? Ideas? Web sites?
A: Your wife’s body is not a bottle of wine; it’s her body. Her body is not a consumable good designed to be enjoyed by someone else and then filed away as a treasured memory—it’s what she lives in. She doesn’t want to wear the clothes you bought her. While there may be some people who enjoy being dressed up by their husband of 30 years, my guess is that she feels pressured and ignored by the outfits you got her and turned off by your repeated attempts to wear her down. You need to let it go. You’ve spent the last year trying to get what you want from her in your empty nest; I think you should knock it off and ask her what’s something she’d like to do. The answer may have nothing to do with sex or dressing up for you, and you should pay attention to whatever she says. It doesn’t sound like you’ve been listening very attentively in the past, and I encourage you to change that habit, lest you find your empty nest even emptier.
Q. Life saved, not ruined: I am in my late-20s and just faced a life-threatening illness. The treatment that saved my life removed any possibility of me ever having biological children. I never had strong maternal urges and I know there are plenty of ways to be a parent if it becomes something I desire. My problem is my mother and extended family act more upset over the loss of my perceived fertility and any future children than the potential loss of my life. I am ecstatic. I thought I would be dead in less than three years and instead got my entire life back. I am sick of questions about my fertility, or suggestions that I should be in some state of mourning. I finally snapped at my mother when she told me I didn’t know what I was “missing out” on in not being a mother. I told her that if she would rather be a grandmother over having a dead daughter, I was sorry to disappoint. We aren’t talking now, and I am this close to cutting off the rest of my family. Am I crazy? Am I missing something here? I don’t care about the potential loss of one kind of future when it means I actually get to have one. I don’t know how to respond to my family anymore.
A: You’re not being irrational in the least. I can understand your mother feeling some grief about the prospect of not having biological grandchildren, but I cannot begin to imagine why she would share that grief with you—or why the prospect of having her own child restored to health and hope wouldn’t be such overwhelmingly good news that it crowded out any smaller disappointments. Your response to her was frankly restrained! If, after a little time to cool down, you want to create an opening for reconciliation, you could reach out and say, “Mom, I hope you can see why it’s been so painful for me to hear you talk about how sad you are over the loss of my fertility when I’ve been celebrating the fact that I’m alive. If you’re ready to apologize, I’m ready to hear it, and I would love to have you in my life again as I celebrate having an exciting, healthy future.” But if she’s not ready to apologize, and if the rest of your family continues to treat you as a broken baby-making machine rather than a happy, healthy human being, then I think you should seriously curtail your interactions with them and spend time with people who actually treat you like a person.
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Q. Too many gifts: My 13-year-old daughter is best friends with “Ashley.” Ashley’s parents are extremely wealthy and their lives revolve around her. I am a single mother of three working two jobs. We aren’t poor, but our vacations are day trips to the public beach, not the Caribbean.
Ashley is a sweet girl and her parents are nice. Too much so. My daughter will visit Ashley and come home with brand new boots or a nice laptop. Ashley’s mother will excuse it—my daughter deserved something nice, the boots were on sale, we got a new laptop anyway, etc. She says I treat Ashley all the time and she is just paying it back. I take Ashley out to McDonald’s with my kids after school; I don’t buy her $50 footwear.
They have invited my daughter to go skiing with them over Thanksgiving break, and I am hesitant to agree. If I let my daughter go, I am sure she will come back with a new suitcase full of designer winter wear. My daughter is still the down-to-earth darling she has always been. Ashley is not a bad influence, but I am really uncomfortable with all this largesse. At the same time I wonder if it just all in my head. I grew up with my mother trading toys, clothes, and bikes with nearly all of our neighbors without a thought. Is this actually a problem, or am I making it one?
A: There are certainly plenty of people who would be thrilled if their daughter had generous friends who wanted to bring her along on a ski trip and furnish her with a new winter wardrobe, but you don’t have to force yourself to grin and bear it. I don’t know how frequently your daughter comes home with new gifts, but maybe part of the reason you’re feeling uncomfortable is because the two of you haven’t had a conversation yet about expectations and how it feels for her. It might be time for such a conversation! Try to learn whether she feels pressured or condescended to or simply enjoys them, and make sure she knows that this isn’t something you’re able to reciprocate on the same scale. I agree that just because your daughter is friends with a girl with generous parents, she’s unlikely to turn into a spoiled brat, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to talk to Ashley’s parents about this upcoming trip and voice your concerns. You can say that you appreciate their generosity, but you’d like to know there’s a limit to how many gifts your daughter is going to receive, and that while one or two are fine, you’re not comfortable with her coming home with a brand new wardrobe.
Q. Ruined bed: We had a housewarming party last week, and my sister-in-law brought her son, a toddler who’s being toilet trained. She refuses to let him wear pull-ups, as we soon learned, and when she put him to sleep in our brand new bed, he had diarrhea. It destroyed our sheets, pillows, and sank into the pillow-top mattress. We couldn’t get the bed clean and had to take it to the dump. Currently we are sleeping on the twin beds in our guest room.
I asked my sister-in-law to pay for half the cost of a new mattress. She got huffy and said I couldn’t possibly blame a child. I told her I didn’t blame our nephew, I blamed her. Kids have accidents and parents pay for them. She could have put some towels under him before putting her son in our bed, or just taken him home. My husband and I don’t have the funds to immediately replace our bed, and I think it is more than fair if my sister-in-law pays for half. My sister-in-law has blown this up into us hating on her and her poor baby boy. The rest of the family agrees that she is being ridiculous but says we need to let it go. For “family harmony.” My husband is happy not to see her until she apologizes and pays. I am just perplexed by her refusal. I would never to do this to my own siblings. Do we have any other choices but family estrangement?
A: I suppose you could take her to small claims court for the money, but aside from that, I don’t know what other options you have. Her behavior sounds totally bizarre and incomprehensible, and I don’t see why you should have to go into debt to buy a replacement bed and then pretend like everything is fine just to “preserve family harmony.” It sounds like you’ve spoken reasonably to her, so I don’t think you need to apologize for saying anything out of line. As far as I can see, you’ve behaved as rationally and as kindly as can be imagined after having your bed destroyed in such a spectacular manner. My guess is that you may never see the money from her, but that doesn’t mean you should withdraw your request. There’s no reason you should have to explain yourself or go into detail with nosy family members, so if anyone else tries to insert themselves into the situation, you can politely tell them it’s between you, your husband, and your sister-in-law.
Q. Re: Body image: Letter writer, you need to drop it. My boyfriend was acting the same way for a while, pressuring me to wear tighter, low-cut, revealing clothing. It became a major issue in our relationship. I felt like a piece of meat, a sexual thing, rather than a respected partner. You may not see it like that, but I bet that she does. It’s her body—let her be comfortable. It’s not about you.
A: You can’t pressure someone into feeling comfortable about something—pressure and comfort are pretty mutually exclusive. If you were actually concerned about your wife’s body image issues, you’d be talking to her about it, asking questions, trying to learn more about her experience, trying to find ways to support her—not buying her gifts she doesn’t want and trying to see what you can get out of the situation. Her body image issues aren’t simply an obstacle in the way of you getting to ogle her. These are issues that affect her life, and as her partner, you should care about that in ways more profound than just, “I want her to feel good enough to put herself on display when I want her to.”
Q. Returning friend: I had been friends with “Leslie” since we were kids. I considered her my sister. After college, Leslie started dating “Mike.” It was the masochism tango. Mike couldn’t go a month without cheating, and Leslie would take him back as soon as he said he was sorry. It was sickening. After three years, Mike got Leslie’s own 18-year-old cousin pregnant. The girl had an abortion, and Leslie spent a night crying on my couch that she was done with Mike. I was ecstatic. A week later, Leslie called me squealing over the fact that Mike proposed to her. I told Leslie the truth: She would be crazy to think Mike changed in the course of a week. She cut me out of her life completely. I had talked to her twice a week since we were 12, and then three years of radio silence. Now out of the blue, Leslie wants to meet up again. She says she misses me. I know from mutual friends that Mike got someone else pregnant who decided to keep the baby. It was too much for Leslie. She filed for divorce. Part of me is happy because I am getting my soul sister back, but the rest of me is angry for getting discarded the way I was. There is so much emotional wreckage here I don’t know how to proceed. Please advise me.
A: I’d be conflicted, too. It makes a ton of sense to feel both excited at the prospect of seeing a friend you’ve missed terribly, as well as hurt and angry that she hasn’t apologized or even acknowledged the ways she pushed you out of her life for trying to be honest with her. Before you respond, ask yourself what you’d be willing to put up with if you let Leslie back in your life. How would you deal with it if she reconciled with Mike again, or even if she just wanted to complain about him nonstop to you, or if she acted like your estrangement was just some big misunderstanding? What do you want her to understand about how her disappearance affected you, and what would constitute a meaningful attempt at making amends on her part? Spend a little time answering those questions before you respond, and proceed with cautious optimism.
Q. Re: Too many gifts: It’s also worth mentioning that your kids might be getting jealous of their sister getting such nice things outside of holidays and birthdays. That might be easier to hear for Ashley’s parents, too.
A: That’s a great point! Again, if your 13-year-old occasionally gets a gift or takes a trip with a friend’s family, that’s one thing, but if it’s a constant shower of presents, that’s got to be tough on your other kids, and that might be a useful thing to bring up. (Hopefully Ashley’s parents actually listen, and don’t just start sending the kid home with three new laptops.)
Q. Too close to his friends?: My boyfriend is a loving man with a large, close circle of friends. At first, I thought that this was wonderful, and they’ve all been very inclusive and nice to me. The problem is, he never stops talking to them! He is involved with several different group chats, and on top of that he messages three friends constantly throughout the day—there is not a half hour that goes by without him messaging at least one of them. Maybe I’m a terrible friend, but I don’t text my friends nearly that much! This makes me feel that no matter where we are, his friends are there too, and that he’s only half paying attention to any conversation we have, because he’s actively involved in a digital one at the same time. I feel like my company is not enough for him.
I’ve brought this up before, but nothing has changed. He messages his friends first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It also complicates the dynamic that some of these friends are women (I’m a woman), and while I know that there are plenty of platonic friendships between men and women, the fact that he feels the need to be in conversation with another woman all day long drives me absolutely mad. I honestly believe that they are just platonic friends, but it gets under my skin. It’s gotten to the point where if I see him on Messenger when we’re in bed, I want to reach over and smash his phone. What can I do?
A: I think this falls under the category of “likely incompatibility.” That doesn’t mean you have to break up with him tomorrow, but the two of you may just have such fundamentally different approaches to staying in touch with friends that you’re not a good long-term match. The most important thing you can do now is be honest about what your ideal level of friendship contact would look like, as well as how frustrated you are by the current level. If you’re at the level where you want to smash his phone when you see him on Messenger in bed, tell him—using calmer rhetoric, of course. Since you’ve talked about this before and nothing has changed, you should tell him that this is a serious, deal-breaker-worthy issue for you. If he shrugs and says, “I’m sorry to hear that, but these friendships mean a lot to me and I’m not going to fundamentally change the way I talk to them,” then you need to be ready to leave and find a boyfriend who talks to his friends once a day—or at least puts his phone away when he’s spending quality time with you.
Q. Re: Body image: I disagree with your complete dismissal of the letter writer. He has a right to expect that his wife seriously consider his reasonable requests, and if it’s not what she wants, to talk to him about it, instead of just ignoring him and hoping he forgets about it. There should be a conversation here, not just a husband shutting up and dealing.
A: I would have more sympathy for the letter writer if there was any sign that he’d ever attempted to understand her perspective. Of course there’s nothing wrong with finding your spouse attractive or making requests for sexual gratification. The problem is that he’s spent the last year trying to get her to do something she’s already said no to, and that he compares her to a bottle of wine going undrunk, rather than a human being with desires and feelings of her own. There should absolutely be a conversation here, but it can’t be a conversation that’s secretly yet another attempt on the letter writer’s part to get his way without listening to her. Unless and until he’s able to accept that her “no” isn’t a problem to be worked around but a limit he needs to respect, he won’t be capable of having a real, meaningful conversation with her.
Q. Is a workplace crush ever worth pursuing?: This summer, I was hired to be a part-time assistant coach to take some work off a team’s other part-time coach. In short order, I got a massive crush on this coach. We’ve spent many hours together coaching since and through that time, I’ve found he’s funny, whip-smart, kind, has a beautiful smile, and all-around is a real mensch. I really like him, even after the intense crush lessened. We’re both single. He’s a really busy Ph.D. student, and I don’t even know if he’d have the time or interest to date. I am a recent graduate. We are good friends, and though I have no idea if he is attracted to me, he does like me on a professional level.
Would it be bad to gauge his interest in dating in general? Or to let him know that I like him? Or should I wait until my contract is over in May? He’s not technically my boss. He’s a co-worker, and we both report to the same person. But if things get weird between us because he isn’t interested, or for any other reason, I don’t want it to impact the students we coach.
A: If you wouldn’t want it to affect the students you coach, I think your best bet is to wait until your contract is up in May. But this is a relatively low-stakes situation—you’re both part-time employees, you’re both single, you already get along well, and you clearly sound like you’d accept a “no” cheerfully and with good grace. If you decide you’d like to see if he’s interested in going on a date before then, I think you should be upfront and tell him that if he ever had the time and inclination, you’d love to—and that if he’s not, you’d love to stay friends and co-workers.