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. Heartbreak: This is so difficult to write. I’m a 46-year-old married man and father that has fallen in love with a woman at work that is 20 years younger than I am. We work in separate offices on different teams but have made a long-distance connection that grew to something serious. We’ve told each other how we feel, but having a real relationship is complicated for obvious reasons. We’ve never even kissed, but I’ve considered blowing my life up and moving to another state to be near her.
Recently I learned that she’s been seeing another man in her office for the last month or two. She didn’t mention it, I think to avoid hurting me, but I could tell something was off. They are closer in age, have similar jobs, and importantly are both single. I’m devastated, much more so than I thought possible. We’ve talked about it, and while we both have strong feelings for each other, it just seems like the cards are stacked against us. Rationally I want her to be happy and it’s totally not fair of me to make her feel guilty for moving on with her life, but it hurts so badly. I’ve never felt like this, I feel like I’m coming apart. Do I let her go and swallow the pain because it’s probably what’s best for her, or do I throw away the life I’ve made to fight for her and a chance at happiness?
A: If you would like to divorce your wife and set up a custody agreement for your children in order to try to convince a co-worker 20 years your junior—who lives in another state and has never kissed you—to break up with her other boyfriend, you are free to do so. The cards are not “stacked against you.” She is dating someone else. I think your time and energy might be better served in asking why you consider that dispiriting vision of the future “a chance at happiness,” preferably with a therapist.
Q. Family needs therapy, but also a blank slate: My family has been in flux for my entire life. My parents are unhappily married, my 30-year-old sister still lives with them, and the house is filled with drinking, mental illness, and WASP-y avoidance. I moved away at 18, got therapy, and feel great as long as I maintain boundaries to avoid getting embroiled in family stress. They recently opened up about wanting to do some kind of family therapy, so we got on the same page, found a therapist, and confirmed an appointment. Then my sister said she’d rather use her own therapist. Over the years, she has said, “I talked to my therapist about you, and she thinks you’re [insert armchair diagnosis here]” to family members. Does this feel unethical, or at least imbalanced? Should I stick to my guns about seeing someone new to all of us? Or am I just getting caught up in chaos by holding out hope?
A: Your sister has been pretty upfront about wanting to see a therapist she feels like belongs to her, or is at least “on her side.” She wants to win therapy. This is a great way to have a miserable, fruitless, antagonistic experience in therapy. Tell her that while you’re willing to see someone new to all of you who can help you communicate differently and identify patterns, you don’t want to turn any one of your individual therapists into marriage and family therapists. If she says, “It’s my therapist or no one,” then you can politely decline and go back to keeping your distance.
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Q. Our first car: My partner and I are planning to buy our first car together. Our finances are joint, and the car would be a joint purchase. But there’s a catch. My partner never learned to drive, doesn’t have a license, and isn’t particularly interested in getting one. In discussing what kind of car we want to get, it’s clear that we have different preferences. I’d rather get a smaller car that’s cheaper, easier to park, and more fuel-efficient. My partner prefers an SUV because he feels safer and also likes sitting higher off the ground. He has gone so far as to say that if I insist on a smaller car, he won’t travel in it. So how much say does the nondriver have in a joint household car purchase? To further complicate, I am the primary breadwinner in our family, while my partner finishes school.
A: Your partner may “feel safer” in an SUV, but to whatever extent any car can be perfectly safe, I guess, there are plenty of perfectly safe smaller cars to choose from. And “I like sitting higher off the ground” doesn’t really match up against “We’d save money on the original purchase and on buying fuel if we got something smaller.” That doesn’t mean your next move should be “You can’t drive and I make more money, so kiss off,” exactly, but practical concerns need to outweigh “It’s fun to sit up above everyone else.” (Which it is! I’m very sympathetic to your partner’s preference there!) If your partner actually follows through with his promise and insists on taking public transportation instead of a modestly priced sedan, the seats on the bus are very high.
Q. Does my partner have an eating disorder?: My partner and I (both genderqueer) have recently moved in together, and while we’re both incredibly happy living together, the move has put a massive strain on our combined finances, compounded with stress brought on by unrelated health events. Since the move, my partner has noticeably gained a significant amount of weight in a very short time, and their eating patterns have changed. (I’m wildly attracted to my partner no matter what their weight.) They’ve disclosed to me that they battled an eating disorder in the past, and these eating behaviors resemble the ones my partner engaged in during that time.
I don’t know whether I should say anything to my partner. Their happiness and well-being are tantamount to me, and I don’t want to make them feel like I’m uninterested in them. What do I do? Should I say nothing but possibly enable an eating disorder relapse? Or should I say something and possibly upset my partner?
A: You have grounds as a partner to ask in a way that’s not automatically judgmental or prying, I think, particularly because your real concern is the sudden change in habit rather than your partner’s size. “You’ve told me you’ve had trouble with eating disorders before, and I wanted to talk to you about that again because I don’t know how I can best be helpful to you. Is it the sort of thing where you want to be able to check in with me about it? Would you rather talk about it with someone who isn’t me? Is there anything I can do that would help relieve some of the stress you’re facing?” There’s a significant and obvious difference between concern trolling and genuine concern, and I think it will be fairly obvious that you’re only seeking to learn more about how your partner is doing and if there’s any way you can help.
Q. Odd interview question: I just found my perfect job. I’m well suited for it, and my potential new boss and I had a great interview and good chemistry—he even said he would hire me on the spot. But I didn’t get the job. I don’t think I got the job because when I was being interviewed by the owner of the company, he asked me a bunch of very personal questions about my sexual orientation, my family history, and whether I had kids or drama in my life. The questions really threw me off and I don’t have a great poker face—I know he could tell. The rest of my interactions with the owner felt uncomfortable. Do I have any legal opinions here?
A: You do! Contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and look into your options. You can find a field office here. Being asked about children and family status is definitely a sign that this office is likely screening applicants on a discriminatory basis. Good luck.
Q. What am I supposed to feel?: I am 31-year-old woman. I get asked on dates by eligible men on a regular basis. I go; I have a good time; 75 percent of the time we meet up again, have more dates. And then, after four or five weeks, I decide it’s not going to work, because I don’t feel anything. This has happened a lot. Most of the men I’m dating are great for me on paper. I like going out with them, too. I have fun and they’re lovely and we usually have a lot to talk about. I just can’t make myself feel like it’s necessary for me to keep seeing them. Being in a relationship doesn’t make me happy or sad. Being out of one doesn’t make me happy or sad. None of the men I’ve dated or been in relationships with has had any effect on my emotional state. It’s like I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel? Is this normal? Are a lot of people like this until they fall in love? Or am I blocking them out in some way? Not trusting them enough to let them in?
A: I do not think this is necessarily a problem! It would be different if you said, “My life is good, but I truly long to be in a committed relationship with a man and I really regret turning these guys down.” But you say that the men you’ve been in relationships with don’t have an effect on your emotional state. So the fact that you generally decide to exit those relationships after giving them the old college try is, I think, the most honest and kind thing you can possibly do! If you have fun on these dates, then by all means go on dates when the mood strikes you. But if you don’t want to rearrange your life just because you feel like you’re supposed to want to be in a relationship, then don’t force yourself.
If you haven’t already spent some time considering the possibility that you may in fact be interested in women, or the possibility that you may not want to date or be in a romantic relationship with anyone, then you might want to do so! But to answer your big question: Is the fact that you generally don’t feel strongly about these guys after a couple of weeks a sign that something is wrong with you, that you don’t trust enough, that there’s some sort of secret, hidden love for these men somewhere deep inside of you that you’ve managed to block from yourself? No, I don’t think so. I think you don’t feel strongly about them, and you quite wisely decide to end things before they start to feel too strongly about you. If being in relationships (with men, at least) doesn’t make you happy or sad, then don’t try to force yourself to be in them.
Q. Mental health stigma: My partner and I are in our mid-20s and have been together for four years. Our relationship is mostly amazing, he is my best friend, and we love each other. We have talked about getting married one day. The problem is that he suffers from depression and some other mental health issues (undiagnosed, hence my uncertainty). He has a history of trauma and abuse from past partners and his family. His family also raised him and his siblings with a deep and profound stigma around talking about or having mental illness. I have seen all of the siblings struggle with mental illness, and none have sought help for it due to this intense stigma. I have talked with my partner about this, and while he is very supportive of our friends when they talk about mental illness, and even encourages his siblings to seek therapy when they talk to him about anxiety, etc., he himself is extremely reluctant. He only began to even admit to me that he thinks he suffers from mental illness when we had already been together a while, despite my having witnessed him having panic attacks and other signs of difficulty. He tries to manage his mental health with exercise and journaling, but that is not working.
Many of his close friends recently moved away from our city, so he does not have a lot of people to confide in. I am his main confidant, and while I want nothing more than to be supportive of him, it is really hard for me to hear how much he is hurting, to listen to him talk about pain and/or hopelessness that I can do nothing to help with. As well, he is sometimes distant with me when he feels the most depressed. He acknowledges that this is difficult and unfair for me, and I agree! His best solution is just to confide in me less about his feelings, which is a solution I dislike strongly, because as hard as it is for me, I want to know, so I can be caring and supportive!
To make matters worse, he did try seeking therapy a couple of years ago but had a very bad experience with a therapist who he did not connect with. That combined with the stigma he learned growing up and the cost of therapy have made him reluctant to try again. He says he is going to look into it, but he has been saying that for almost a year, and nothing has changed. I hate to see him struggle, and while I can’t imagine leaving him, I also can’t imagine a life where I am so often dealing with someone else’s pain and hopelessness. What can I do to help him?
A: Are you seeing a therapist? It doesn’t sound like you are right now. I think you should make an appointment for yourself, for as soon as possible. Spending at least an hour a week with a therapist whose goal is to help you with your mental health would be a good thing, regardless of whether your boyfriend ever sets another foot in a therapist’s office, and regardless of whether you stay together or split up. You’ve been spending so much time and energy on figuring out your boyfriend’s reasons for avoiding therapy, for pinpointing exactly why he can’t call a friend or break out of his family’s hold. That’s both understandable and commendable—you two are in a long-term relationship, you love one another, you care about his well-being, and in a lot of ways, he’s trying pretty hard. But the task before you right now isn’t, “How can I try even harder to get my boyfriend to find a good therapist?” The task before you is, “How can I figure out what sort of life and relationship I can be happy in, regardless of whether my boyfriend decides to see a therapist?” If his strategy right now is, “OK, I’ll stop telling you when I’m unhappy, but I’ll continue to pull away and become distant during those times,” you get to ask yourself, “Does this strategy work for me? Does it contribute to my well-being? Can I imagine a long and happy relationship on this foundation?” See the therapist your boyfriend won’t. Whatever decisions you make next, I think you’ll be glad you set aside some time and money that’s just for you, not for trying to push your boyfriend a little further up that hill.
Q. Ruining the holidays!: After spending so much time reading about how other letter writers are “ruining the holidays,” now I am, apparently. My partner and I have been together for two years. Our first Christmas together, they went home to visit their family without me. Last year, they stayed home and celebrated Christmas with my little family. Now, this year, my partner wants me to come celebrate Christmas with their family, because many of them are very elderly, and so that I can experience a large family Christmas. My father is hurt, and my brother thinks I’m ruining the holidays. I’m in my 40s but have never been away from my family on Christmas. I understand that they will miss me, but how do I get through to them that I’m not doing anything wrong? My partner and I haven’t booked our holiday travel yet so there’s still a chance we won’t go away.
A: “I’ll miss you guys so much! I’ve never spent Christmas with [Partner’s] family and I’m really looking forward to it. I’d love to get together and have a little celebration before we leave, if you’re available.” That’s about as much quarter as you need to give, I think. It’s totally fine to acknowledge that your family is sad and will miss you, but it’s better to cheerfully not engage with any “ruining the holidays” rhetoric and to move ahead with buying your tickets.
“You’re ruining the holidays.”
“Oh, I disagree. I love you, and I’ll miss being with you, but we’ve spent over 40 Christmases together and we’ve got plenty more left in the future. I’ll talk to you later, gotta run!”
Parenting advice from Care and Feeding
Q. Nosy neighbor?: I live in a small building—26 units—with some young families and other singles. It’s an expensive building, as is most every place in L.A. We mostly get along very well—except for a family with two small children, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. They live across the courtyard from me and the children are always crying and screaming; the mother is always yelling at them, inside their apartment and elsewhere. My next-door neighbor hears the worst of it: The other day, the mother put the girl outside the door and closed it because the child was screaming! She screamed louder! Then the mother took her inside and put her in her room and slammed the door and the child screamed some more. I don’t hear any of it; my neighbor shares a wall, so she does.
The neighbors who know about this hate what’s happening but don’t want to get involved; I think someone has to step up to help these children from being mistreated! I’ve had family members who were terribly abused and know lots of people who were abused as children, as well. As adults, they have said if only someone had said something when they were growing up, how different their lives may have been!
The father travels a lot for business and isn’t home a lot. He’s pretty passive, from what I can see. The mother is the screamer and he tries to calm her down. She doesn’t talk to anyone in the building and is an awful driver, too. She’s always on her cellphone—surprise!—even when the kids stuck their heads through the garage gate and almost got beheaded when another neighbor was pulling into the garage! We’re hoping the family moves out when their lease expires, but that won’t end the abuse/mistreatment.
Everyone else is a big fat chicken and I want to help the kids. Thank you.