Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My wife thinks I’m happy she lost our baby: I was in the midst of an affair when my wife, “Theresa,” became unexpectedly pregnant. I panicked and confided to my affair partner that the pregnancy couldn’t have happened at a worse time. We weren’t financially prepared for a child, I was stuck in a miserable job, and fatherhood terrified me. It took me a few months, but by the time Theresa was six months pregnant, I was as ecstatic about fatherhood as Theresa had been originally. Then we lost our baby. It was devastating, and comforting Theresa made me realize what a horrible husband I was. I ended the affair and, in the months since, have dedicated myself to being a better partner. Then my former affair partner sent Theresa copies of our texts and emails, highlighting the ones in which I confessed my fears about fatherhood. Theresa read the “This pregnancy couldn’t have come at a worse time” text and now believes I was relieved when we lost our baby. She has no reason to trust me, and I don’t deserve to have any punches pulled. But losing our child broke my heart, and I have no idea how to convince her of that. We want to save our marriage, but this, more than the sex, has driven a wedge in between us. What do I do?
A: Theresa sounds like a remarkably forgiving woman. I think a big part of what you need to “do” right now is accept that there is a limit to how many guilt-reducing actions you can perform. What you did was terrible. You know that, and living in that reality must feel agitating and difficult, but I can’t offer you a list of tasks to perform that will result in feeling like you’ve got a brand-new lease on life.
You can listen to your wife and look for ways to support her. That may include giving her space, lots of space, when she asks for it. Please don’t overwhelm her with protestations about how sad you were when she miscarried. You can be honest about your grief, of course, but if you spend too much time trying to “convince” her of it, you’ll leave no room for her grief. The sad fact of the matter is that you did not behave like a man who cared about his pregnant wife or unborn child. Your struggle right now, I think, comes from a desire to say, “My actions at the time don’t reflect how I truly felt, my feelings at the time were more genuine and loving.” But you didn’t let those feelings dictate your actions then, and they shouldn’t take center stage now. Whether or not you felt relief when your wife lost her baby, you were sleeping with another woman and confessing intimate thoughts about your marriage to her. That’s more important than what you felt at the time.
Seek counseling, both with your wife and separately. Ask what she needs right now—not what you can do, but what she needs, and seek to do it. Don’t seek to get rid of this guilt as quickly as possible, but let it inform the kind of person you become in the future. Don’t try to push your guilt off onto the woman you had the affair with—she’s responsible for her behavior, and you were and are responsible for yours. If she did something that hurt your wife, you gave her the ammunition. If ultimately all the remorse and regret can’t save your marriage, let your wife leave in peace and strive to act better toward future partners.
Q. Mooch: My boyfriend’s 19-year-old sister, “Callie,” got kicked out of the family home because of her pot smoking. She sleeps on his couch, has a job, but pays nothing. My boyfriend says she is “saving money,” but it has been five months. I am trying to stay out of it, but Callie is a master mooch. If she can steal a ride, she expects you to run all her errands. If she can steal a meal, she will order double of the most expensive meal on the menu. Call her on it, and she flips her lid and cries on cue.
I try to stay away from her, but my boyfriend gets manipulated into asking me for help. The last time, Callie cried to him that she was “starving” while he was out of town for a job. The bus doesn’t run on weekends, so I got volunteered to take Callie to the grocery store. I picked Callie up and told her she had an hour before I had to go to work. Forty-five minutes in, Callie texted me that she had ditched getting groceries to get her nails done in the shop next door. I told her I was leaving if she wasn’t back in 15. She wasn’t. I went to work. Callie had to walk five miles back to the apartment with her groceries. She sent me over 20 texts, half of them in profanity. My boyfriend censured me for this: Callie is “just a baby” and “needs support.” We are both in our late 20s. At 19, I was going to school full time and working 40 hours. I love my boyfriend, but I am sick of Callie.
A: If you’re sick of Callie, I’m afraid you’ll have to get rid of the boyfriend, as much as you might love him, because they seem like a package deal. When someone sends you 10 expletive-ridden texts in a row for going to work instead of waiting outside of a nail salon and your boyfriend’s response is, “Well, she needed more support from you in that moment,” you have a terrible boyfriend. He’s going to continue choosing Callie over you for as long as you let him.
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Q. Not my father’s girl: My parents split up when I was a toddler. There’s a lot of animosity between them and probably more to the situation than what I know, but my father gradually disappeared during the next decade and never fought to be with me. My mom’s not the easiest person to deal with, but she’s the one that was there for me when I grew up. My dad eventually remarried and had more children. He’s recently divorced, and my younger half-sisters have left for college. He has, by all accounts, been a good and present dad to them. Now he’s lonely, his health is deteriorating, and he’s desperate to reconnect and make up for lost time. But after a couple of decades of feeling abandoned and not good enough for him, and years in therapy to deal with those issues, I’ve come to terms with the situation and I just don’t feel the need to make an effort to reconnect. It sounds cynical, but I’m comfortable with living the rest of my life without getting to know him again or forgiving him, and his half-hearted texts and letters are not enough at this point. My friends think I should put the animosity behind me and try to have a relationship with him, and that it’ll eventually be good for me too. That might be, but I just don’t want to. Do I owe him a try? Should I be more generous for his sake? Do I have to be the adult to please a parent who wasn’t there for me when I needed him?
A: It’s not cynical to say that you don’t trust someone who’s never been reliable or supportive—it’s realistic. Your father wants you to provide him with some sense of closure or forgiveness or a sense that he has always been a good person who did the right thing. You want to prioritize the people in your life who have always been there for you, and you don’t want to reopen old feelings of inadequacy and abandonment. If you felt a desire to reconnect, that would be one thing. Or if your father seemed to have really, searchingly looked at his own behavior over the years and was prepared to full-heartedly acknowledge how he failed you as a parent. But if he’s just sending you the odd “Hey kiddo, miss you” text, and the idea of spending more time with him seems exhausting and unproductive, you’re not doing anything wrong or ungenerous or cynical by declining to set up a lunch date.
Q. Pregnant friend thinks I’m cursed: For the past few years my husband and I have been trying to have a child, which has resulted in many miscarriages and the discovery that I have an underlying medical condition that prevents me from being able to carry to term. This was obviously devastating news, but I’ve tried to stay positive and not let my circumstances interfere with the joy I get from my friends’ baby news and children. However, one friend, “Katie,” after telling me she was pregnant, cut me off—no texts, calls, and she comes up with excuses any time I invite her to hang out. A mutual friend told me that Katie is worried that my “bad luck” with pregnancy will rub off and she is afraid to have me around. Katie does have a history with anxiety and depression, and I get that irrational fears are part of the way she experiences anxiety, so I’m trying not to take this personally. At the same time, I wonder if it’s possible to reach out to her in a way that won’t cause her more anxiety, to tell her that I’m thrilled for her and will be happy to meet the baby whenever she’s ready to see me. Or should I just keep quiet entirely until she reaches out on her own?
A: If what this mutual friend has told you is true, then that’s one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard, and “having a history with anxiety and depression” is no excuse. I’m so sorry for your losses, and I think your approach to experiencing joy vicariously through your friends is absolutely beautiful. The fact that you’re worried about causing Katie more anxiety by congratulating her on her pregnancy just highlights how little Katie deserves to have you in her life. I don’t want to tell you that you have to hold a grudge against Katie if you don’t want to, but please know that her decision to drop you from her life once she got pregnant is not a side effect of either anxiety or depression—it was a cold and unloving act. Please focus your energies instead on the friends who have been there for you, and leave Katie to herself.
Q. Wife of surprise adult son: My husband was the product of a brief relationship between his mother, “Lucy,” and a foreign visiting professor at a nearby university. Lucy never told the biological father, who left, about the pregnancy, so he is unaware of my husband’s existence. Lucy started dating the man who would become my husband’s father while she was pregnant. My husband has always known that his father is not his biological father. He never expressed interest in connecting with his biological father. When Lucy died a few years ago, people, in their grief, started talking: My husband learned, from his aunt (Lucy’s sister), some identifying details about his biological father. He has now found this man on the internet. He is not sure he wants to make contact. However, he occasionally raises the idea of going to the (foreign) university where this man allegedly teaches to introduce himself. How can I convince my husband that blindsiding this man in person is a bad idea? I have suggested that if he wants to make contact, he should start with an email or a letter. My husband says a letter might go unanswered, and he doesn’t even know if the contact information he has is good. Both are true, but I think showing up and telling this man that you are his unknown thirtysomething son is unnecessarily shocking and risks a hurtful outcome for my husband.
A: I think if your husband is worried his biological father might not respond to an email, it’s worth gently following up and asking if the only reason he wants to find the man in person is so he’ll be forced to respond. It may be the hurtful outcome you fear is the outcome your husband would in fact prefer. Unless your husband is unusually naïve, I think he must know this is a high-conflict option. It’s a little akin to proposing to someone in public without discussing it with them beforehand. There’s a built-in audience that—the instigator hopes, at least—will add pressure, making the surprised party more likely to say yes, to go along with it, to be agreeable.
Since your husband hasn’t yet bought a ticket, I think it’s likely that he’s just working through some of his deepest fears and insecurities, preferring to envision a public reunion or at least a public argument rather than continued silence. Talk to him about his other options, about the best- and worst-case outcomes for each of them, and what he hopes to get out of contacting this man. Encourage him to talk about it with his friends and to seek out other people who have reconnected with biological parents later in life. Offer to help confirm the contact information with the university before he does something like buy a plane ticket.
Q. Chemistry but no attraction: I’ve met a guy via online dating who is wonderful. He’s smart, has a great career, and we have wonderful chemistry. Our first date was really nice, and he’s made it clear he wants to continue moving forward. Here’s the kicker: I’m not attracted to him. At all. He’s attractive, he’s just not ticking off any boxes for me. I am, however, extremely attracted to every other aspect of him. Enough that I’m feeling silly for letting something so shallow get in the way. Am I screwed here? Can attraction grow in a case like this?
A: I think it can sometimes be difficult to meet someone in person for the first time when you’ve already established a profound connection online, and it’s not unheard of to need a little time to let the weirdness of meeting in person subside before figuring things out. So, if you wanted to give this another couple of dates to see if anything changes, I’d say go ahead (although feel free to take things slowly and don’t rush to have sex if you’re not feeling it). But it’s not shallow to want to experience in-person, in-real-time physical attraction to someone you want to date. It is a pretty big component of dating for most people, and it’s not something you need to apologize for or feel guilty over. There are lots of wonderful, smart, career-driven, funny, nice people that you don’t necessarily want to date; that’s what friendship is for. So I’ll encourage a second or third date but with the following caveat: Only if you have reason to think things might change, not because you feel guilty or foolish for not spontaneously generating attraction toward this guy because he seems like a good person. If the only reason you’d give dating him another shot is because you feel like you’re doing something wrong by not feeling any in-person chemistry, do yourself and this guy a favor and don’t go out with him again.
Q. Premarital counseling never mentioned the crushes: I am a law student, and recently I have noticed that I have become incredibly attracted to a classmate, “Brenda.” We have a good friendship, and over the last six months she has turned to me more and more for support, not just for advice about what clerkship or interview to take, but also for significant emotional support. We ended up in almost all the same classes this semester, completely by accident, and it was only after working together closely that I realized that I felt this way. The problem is that we are both recently married (within the last year or so), and she is seven years younger than I am. I have no desire to cheat on my spouse and have talked to my spouse about the attraction. She was hurt, but she knows that I did not ask or want to feel this way. That said, I am having a hard time seeing Brenda every day as my study partner and in class, and have withdrawn to try to set some better boundaries to our friendship so I can ride out this crush. Brenda has been really confused as to why I’ve pulled away, and I feel like I owe it to her to explain what is going on. I’m a year older than her in school and will be graduating in May, but I might be staying with the school in an administrative role, so “running out the clock” won’t work. My instinct says to cut Brenda out for the health of my marriage, but I feel like Brenda would be really hurt by my shutting her out abruptly with no explanation. Should I talk to Brenda about how I feel and hope she understands, or just stay silent until this crush passes?
A: I think if Brenda were to think about this situation carefully for a few minutes, she’d be able to come up with a reasonable explanation for your increased distance. You two were only slightly-more-than-classmates to each other for six months, so it isn’t as if this was a long-standing friendship with a history of honesty and shared disclosure. I don’t think it would improve your situation to pull Brenda aside and say, “By the way, the reason I’m not getting coffee after class with you anymore is because I don’t want to cheat on my wife with you.” You can set boundaries without treating Brenda like a pariah, so don’t change course when you pass her in the hallway or pointedly change seats if she sits near you. Just keep your friendliness slightly more distant than it used to be. Don’t make yourself available to talk outside of class, and wait for the immediacy of the crush to fade.
Q. Socializing sisters: Of four sisters, only “Susie” has a child full time (two of us are part-time stepmothers). We love her and our nephew, but her complex is driving a wedge in the family. Susie refuses to socialize unless it is on her terms. We travel to see her, despite the fact that it would be easier for everyone to meet up in a central location. She brings the baby to bars, nice restaurants, and day spas. It is embarrassing to have a shrieking, sticky toddler ruining the atmosphere for everyone. Susie naturally ignores this until one of us has to speak up and play bad guy. This baffles us. Our husbands are fully capable of parenting alone for a few hours. We don’t understand why Susie will not let her husband do the same. He has even volunteered to do so, but Susie refuses. We have had spats with Susie over this, and at one point she said none of us were “real” moms. Susie later apologized, but this caused us to slow down the “official” sister gatherings. The three of us regularly still get together on the down low, but involving Susie is exhausting. What can we do here?
A: Continue to get together with the rest of your sisters without Susie as often as you like when you want to go somewhere that’s adults-only, and periodically extend invitations that include her when you go somewhere that can accommodate children. Enjoy the general reduction of exhaustion in your life.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! We’ll be having a second live chat this Friday (same time).
Q. Help his mistress?: It sounds like a bad joke, but my cheating husband stepped into the street, got hit by a semi, and died. Instead of going through a difficult divorce, I have inherited all his assets and am a very wealthy woman. I have no idea how to deal with any of this. I held a memorial and didn’t stay long. I felt like a fraud. Friends told me that his mistress showed up in tears. Apparently she is a single mom, and my husband was paying for her apartment and her son’s private school. Am I crazy to want to reach out and maybe help her? My circle of friends runs the gamut from glee to indifference about her fate. My husband and I had been drifting apart for a while before he died. I can’t process anything right now rationally and could use an outside perspective.