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. Why can’t you close your mouth?: “Jane” is one of my best friends. She and her husband, “Tom,” are very good to me, often inviting me over for dinner. They don’t go out much because they have a young son, so going to their house is usually when I get to see Jane. The problem? I suffer from an extreme case of misophonia. I could be in a crowded room full of people talking, but if one person is chewing loudly that’s literally all I can hear, and I turn into a raging, almost homicidal crazy person. Tom eats very loudly, and dinner with them induces a lot of anxiety in me. More and more I am turning down dinner invitations, with vague excuses, and that obviously confuses Jane. The further problem is that she knows how much loud eating bothers me, but as far as I know, hasn’t talked to him about it. How do I handle this? (I can’t seek therapy for this. I don’t have the means to pay, and frankly, why should I have to learn to accept people’s rude and disgusting behavior anyway?)
A: Since Jane already knows about your misophonia, I’m not quite sure why she’s confused, and I think you have the opportunity to clarify and be honest. “You’ve expressed a little confusion about why I’ve been turning down your dinner invitations. You may remember that I’m especially sensitive to the sound of other people chewing, and Tom in particular is a loud chewer. I’m sorry I haven’t been clear about this sooner, but it’s an uncomfortable subject. I love and miss you both, so I’d love to find a time when we can see each other again soon, but can we arrange to meet up after dinner is over?”
Q. What do I owe my dog sitter?: Last month I went on a two-week European vacation. I asked a co-worker to stay at my house and care for my small, very sweet dog. I don’t know her well, but I had heard through the grapevine that she lives an hour-plus drive from work and stays nearby when she’s working, so I figured this would benefit us both, since I’d get a dog sitter, and she would get a free place to stay. She agreed right away, and while I was gone sent daily reassurances and photos of her and the dog on walks around town. Here’s the issue: I’ve since heard from a couple of co-workers that she’s unhappy I did not pay her for dog sitting. We never discussed payment, and I thought it was a mutually beneficial agreement! Since I’ve been back, she has asked me to watch her cats over the holidays (I’m allergic, and she lives far away), and if she and her husband can stay at my house when they come into the city next month for a nighttime event. I feel like she thinks I owe her some debt, and it makes me uncomfortable. Even more awkward is that while I don’t supervise her, I am above her in the workplace hierarchy, and she has been complaining about my not paying her to people we both work with. What do I owe this person?
A: You’re definitely in the wrong here, I think. It’s already a little iffy to ask someone junior to you at work to help you out around the house, but if she makes less money than you and you have enough money to take a two-week European vacation, then you should have paid her. “This benefits us both” might work as an approach when you’re both broke college students trading parking spots, but it doesn’t really apply when one of you is vacationing in Grenarnia and the other is pet-sitting round-the-clock for two weeks. Even if your dog is very small and sweet, and even if your home is very convenient to the office, she was working. If you would have paid a dogsitter you didn’t know, you should have paid her. She may have felt uncomfortable saying to someone higher-ranking at the office, who she barely knew, “So how much does this job pay?” You took advantage of your rank to get something you wanted, and it was convenient to assume that she was just as happy with the situation as you were.
You invited this problem by asking her to stay at your house “informally,” and now she wants to continue that arrangement in a way that benefits her. That doesn’t mean you have to look after her cats when you’re allergic, or offer her a place for the night when she’s coming to the city. Say you’re not available to catsit or host, but that you realize how much work she put in looking after your dog while you were out of town, and that you’d like to pay her an appropriate daily rate for what she did. Then, in the future, if you want a dogsitter who understands perfectly what the limitations of that relationship are—namely, that they look after your dog for money and then go away afterwards—hire a professional.
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Q. Holidays: My son and daughter-in-law both work in the medical field; her parents take care of their sons. My family has never spent a Christmas or Thanksgiving with my grandsons. My son and his wife come out in the spring and summer to visit us, but they’d rather spend the holidays working than seeing us. I understand they are trying to pay off loans and save money, but it hurts my heart to not even have one Christmas with all my family under one roof. The last one was years ago when my daughter-in-law was pregnant. I don’t think it is fair that the other grandparents get every Christmas with my grandsons. How do I bring this up with them? Should I?
A: I think you can broach the subject, with the following caveats: Don’t make the request for this Christmas, since that’s rapidly approaching, and leave the other grandparents out of it. You can say “It would mean so much to me to spend Christmas with my grandsons” without adding, “And your wife’s parents get to see them too often.” Also, as with all requests, for it to be real and genuine, you have to be prepared to accept no for an answer, especially since—as you know!—your son and his wife already visit you twice a year and are struggling to pay off student loans. Ask if they would be willing to change their visiting schedule to include Christmas, if not next year, then the year after. Stress that you understand they have certain financial constraints but that it would mean a lot to you. Then close with “I understand if you can’t, and I can’t wait to see you on your next visit.”
Q. Money isn’t an apology: When I was young, my older sister used to tease me. A lot. Her usual technique was to do or say something hurtful, and then make fun of me for getting upset. For years I felt very guarded around her, and our relationship was emotionally distant. The situation has improved over the last few years, but lately things seem to be sliding back to the old status quo. Now, as an adult, I have much less tolerance for my sister’s bullying behavior. I’m still a student, but my sister has finished her graduate degree and makes about eight times what I do in a year. In the past, she’s given me a little cash here and there, especially around the holidays. After working with a wonderful therapist, I’ve decided that I no longer want to accept her money. I don’t want to feel beholden to her in any way. Here’s the thing: Should I also repay her past gifts? To be clear, she herself called them gifts and not loans. Financially, it would be a bit of a stretch, but I believe I could manage if I paced my repayments over time. What do you think?
A: I don’t think you need to repay past Christmas gifts in order to set limits with your sister now. You can tell her you appreciate her past gifts but that you no longer need the money and won’t accept any more cash gifts, and leave it at that.
Q. Re: Why can’t you close your mouth?: No, no, no! Prudie! No. Simply say, “I really love hanging out with you all, but I have misophonia and it makes eating with others difficult. Can we hang out and do something that doesn’t involve food?”
A: That’s totally fine too! The letter writer has already talked to their friend about their misophonia, and the friend seems to have forgotten how that makes mealtimes an inopportune time for getting together, so I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to acknowledge that Tom is a loud chewer. I don’t think it’s on par with “Your husband is a boor and totally impossible to be around.” But yes, if the letter writer doesn’t want to acknowledge that Tom has lousy table manners, then that’s a perfectly fine alternative.
Q. Bad breakup aftermath: A year ago, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend. We had a fight, and I needed some space, so I took a weekend to myself in the mountains. He proceeded to call my parents and my work and tell them I was acting “mentally unstable.” I had turned off my cellphone for the weekend and came home to dozens of texts and voicemails. I was humiliated, and my boyfriend told me it was my fault for worrying him. I broke up with him. When I came home from work, he had had the locks changed and tossed all my clothes on the lawn. I ended up living in a motel for weeks before I found a new place. My parents blamed me for the breakup and continued to remain in contact with my ex while he stalked me on social media. If I was at a bar and friends posted a picture of me, he would email it to my parents, then I would get calls accusing me of being an alcoholic. All this petered off once my ex moved on to a new girlfriend, but for a few months it was hell.
I am finally making friends again for the first time in years, but at Thanksgiving, I was relating a story when my mother interrupted me to ask if I was dating the friend in the story. The first thought in my mind was, “Would you choose him over me, too?” It was like going through a car crash sitting still. My parents believed the worst of me even though I am a good person and a good daughter. They chose to believe my ex over me. How they spoke to me was how my abusive boyfriend spoke to me. I know I should be in therapy, but that is not going to happen until I start my new job in January and my insurance kicks in. How do I deal with the holidays?
A: Spend them with friends. Or alone in the mountains. Spend them anywhere that sounds relaxing and peaceful—and I don’t think that includes your parents’ house. You don’t have to hash this out with your parents first, or decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them for the rest of your life. You can just let them know you won’t be visiting for the holidays this year and make your own plans.
Q. Can I wipe out a friend’s debt without making things weird?: A dentist pressured my closest friend’s husband into having numerous—likely unnecessary—root canals. They have never had credit card debt before but now have at least $5,000 in debt. The good news is they are going to consult a new dentist, so this swindling shouldn’t continue. My husband and I are extremely well-off. I want to relieve this debt. Is there any way I can bring this up that won’t make things weird between us? It will take at least a year of stress and scrimping for them to cover this. I just want to make things easier, and I don’t see this as a repeating pattern.
A: I cannot promise you that things will not get weird! Things can almost always get weird, but it’s still kind of you to offer, and I think it’s worth trying. They’re not likely to be ruined by $5,000 in debt, especially if they’ve managed to avoid going into debt before, so don’t fear that their lives will be ruined if they say no. Try to first broach the subject with whichever one of them you are closer with. If they bridle, then you can back off. If they seem receptive, make it clear that it’s a gift and not a loan, and that you hope their next dentist takes a slightly more conservative approach.
Q. Christmas marriage: I am in my 50s and have been with my partner for several years. We want to get married but don’t care for all the frou-frou. We do want all our children and grandchildren there. Two of my children live overseas and can’t visit more than once or twice every few years. This Christmas will be the first time everyone has been together for almost a decade. We arranged to have a small ceremony at our church and then planned to go about the regular holiday events. Everyone has been enthusiastic about this but my partner’s daughter, “Darla.” She has accused us of “upstaging” Christmas. Darla only lives an hour away. This has been very hurtful. We don’t want presents or a reception, and I am not wearing white; we just want a half-hour. My partner is very unhappy with Darla, and I don’t want to deepen this divide, but are we out of line? I just want all my family there.
A: Christmas is going to be just fine. Christmas is a very big, very powerful holiday with a lot of vocal, public boosters. I think you should both give Darla a little space to nurse her hurt feelings but make it clear that your decision is final, that it’s relatively low-key, and that it’s the only way to make sure everyone can attend your wedding. (And have a wonderful day—congratulations!)
Q. Re: Holidays: Instead of coming from a place of hurt, could you present your desire to spend the holidays together from a place of help? Offer to go to them, babysit while they work, and pitch in to make the holidays easier on them. They are working parents, and if you make this about you, you just add pressure to their already intense lives. Tell them you miss them and want to help for the holidays.
A: I think that’s a really useful framing! Again, it totally makes sense that the letter writer wishes to see the grandkids as much as the other grandparents do. I just don’t think that’s what the writer should lead with when it comes to making this request. Let the kids know that if there is anything you can do to make a Christmas visit easier and less stressful for them, you’d be happy to help, and you might be able to make it work out.
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