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! I’m already so mad on behalf of one of these letter writers. Let’s get started.
Q. My husband’s fantasy life: I discovered this weekend that my husband belongs to a website for people whose spouses or partners cheated on them. He posts there frequently, and he’s talked about our children, our financial struggles, and my infidelity with my boss. The thing is: I’ve never cheated on my husband. It’d be one thing if he’d created a fictional persona for this website. It’d still be misleading and a cause for concern, but the things he writes about our marriage are lies. A few times he takes an argument we had in real life and filters it through the prism of a man whose wife cheated on him.
I’m so upset. I haven’t talked to him yet, and part of me wonders if there’s a reasonable explanation. Why would he invest time creating this false portrait of our marriage? He’s never expressed concerns about my boss to me, and I’m not even that close to the other man. I could use some perspective: How concerning is this discovery?
A: It’s very concerning! It may be common to, say, rehearse arguments in the shower, or to fantasize that we’re more aggrieved than we really are in the midst of a disagreement, or generally to indulge in the occasional Secret Life of Walter Mitty–style fantasy, but this goes way beyond passive imagining and well into questionable territory. He’s presenting a false version of you to strangers in order to feel victimized and heroic at the same time. That takes away time and energy he could have been putting into your actual marriage! Whatever justification your husband tries to offer you—my guess is that his first response will be something along the lines of “I don’t really know why I do this,” followed by “It’s just blowing off steam, I guess” or “It doesn’t mean anything”—know that you have every right to be hurt, that your trust and intimacy have been violated, that your husband needs to find a better strategy for coping with disappointment and insecurity, and that you don’t have to just “get over it.”
Q. In-law used a racial slur: I’m Asian, and my husband and his family are white. Recently, my sister-in-law used an offensive slur about Asian people as a joke while speaking with me. I was visibly uncomfortable, as she tried to explain why it was just a joke, but I didn’t respond at the time because I didn’t want to ruin the event we were at. Later I told my husband about his sister’s comments, and he (unnecessarily) apologized to me but seemed to brush it off by saying, “You know she’s an idiot.” I didn’t push it further, but it’s been a few days and it’s still bothering me. My sister-in-law is married to a man of color and has biracial children. I know being related to a person of color doesn’t stop someone from being racist. However, I also know that she’s fiercely protective of her family and would be furious if anyone used equivalent language with them (because I’ve seen it happen), which is why I was taken aback at how casually racist she was with me. I don’t know what to do. Do I let it go? Do I bring it up to my husband again? Do I say something to her, and if so, when and what?
A: Lifelong jerks have figured out a really successful grift when they can get, without even asking, other people to offer, “Oh, they’ve always been [ignorant/rude/boorish]” as a defense of their behavior and to prevent any real accountability or change. What your husband meant, of course, was that his sister makes a big fuss whenever he’s tried to get her to apologize or stop doing something hurtful, so he gave up ages ago to make life easier for himself and wants you to do the same. But it’s such a flimsy defense!
You: “Your sister said something flippant and racist that upset me.”
Him: “Yes, well, she says flippant things a lot, so we’ve decided en famille that she just gets to do that indefinitely.”
Definitely bring it up with your husband again, and let him know that you’re going to talk to his sister soon and you’d appreciate his support, even if he thinks she’s an idiot. Since she said this to you directly, I think it makes sense for you to speak to her on your own behalf, rather than asking your husband to run interference for you. Tell her that this has been on your mind ever since she used the slur, that you didn’t find the joke funny, that you don’t want to hear her use that word again, and that you’d appreciate an apology.
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Q. Darling, you look exhausted: What do I say to a co-worker who keeps walking up to my desk with a big show of affection and then tells me how tired I look and how tired my eyes look? It’s a horrible thing to say over and over to someone, and she’s usually interrupting me, such that I need to look up directly from peering at my computer screen. It’s done with such a benevolent, huggy approach, but it feels like a weird maternal show of dominance at the same time.
A: Oh God, the full-body shudder this letter induced in me! I know exactly the kind of co-worker you mean, and I’m so sorry you have to deal with her terrible Coraline energy. This is the type of person who is likely to respond to any direct request—“Please stop commenting on how tired you think I look”—with a showy production of hurt and shock: “Well, I’m sure I didn’t mean anything by it. I had no idea you took it so personally.” This will be irritating but fine, and you’ll feel much better with a sort of icy reserve springing up between the two of you than you did flinching and steeling yourself every morning.
Q. Breaking point: I want another baby. It is irrational, but I want it more than anything. My husband and I have two boys, 6 and 3. My husband is upset with me over this. He says we would have to move (we have a small two-bedroom house), our income would suffer (day care is more expensive than the income from my part-time job), and he would have to give up our paid-off truck. He brought out a spreadsheet and listed every negative consequence of another child, and I just sat there. I started crying, and my husband told me I would need to make a choice whether I wanted to “destroy our family” over this or let it go. We went to counseling after our first baby. My husband didn’t want a second child, but I got pregnant. We agreed this would be the end, but I want another baby. This desire will not leave me. Am I crazy for this? My mother tells me that I am risking my marriage and that I should give it “more time” to see if my husband comes around. He is a great father and lives for our boys, but I don’t know if this is the breaking point or not.
A: This certainly sounds like the breaking point to me. There’s been a pretty serious breakdown in trust in your marriage if your husband is at the point of making spreadsheets and using language like “destroying our family.” You’re not “crazy” for having a powerful, emotional desire for wanting more children, but you can pay attention to that desire and acknowledge your feelings without letting them drive your choices. Having children really ought to be a unanimous decision. It sounds like a part of you is hoping that because your husband “came around” to having a second child, if you sort of tune out his objections now and try to get pregnant anyway, the same thing will happen again. But that’s wishful thinking that ignores your husband’s very clearly stated choice, and I think it will backfire. You’ve been to counseling before, and I think it’s time to go back. A therapist can help you find ways to mourn and honor your feelings of loss and help you and your husband find more effective ways to communicate than spreadsheets and silence.
Q. How do I tell my future in-laws that I am not like my snobby parents? I am a woman in my late 20s who is happily engaged. My engagement should be smooth sailing except for my parents, who have recently expressed their disdain for my fiancé. They think he is not good enough for me because he isn’t in a particularly well-paying career track, and his family is less well-off than ours. I am outraged and mortified at how shallow my parents are. My fiancé and his family are good, hardworking people and do not deserve my parent’s disgusting snobbery.
I consulted my fiancé about it, and he has since mentioned it to his parents. I have no idea how I am going to see their sweet faces again. I never want them to feel like they are in any way inferior to my parents, and I especially don’t want them to think I would ever see their son as somehow less than me. Do I bring this situation up to them? Act like it never happened? How do I make sure they know that my parents’ views do not reflect my own, without being insensitive about their relatively less cushy financial status?
A: You can make sure your in-laws don’t think you condone your parents’ rudeness by making it clear to your parents that you won’t tolerate any comments, direct or indirect, about how much money your fiancé or his family make. If they can’t commit to that, then they don’t get to spend time with you and your fiancé. Since this nasty, embarrassing behavior is coming from your side of the family, it’s incumbent on you to make sure that it’s at the very least contained. Your in-laws will know you’re different from your parents if you act differently, not because you’ve taken them aside and said, “I don’t care how much money you make.”
Q. Breakup etiquette: Is there a proper way to break up? We were together 2½ years. We live far apart, but he spent summers at my place, and I visited him about 10 times a year. We also traveled together. We were excitedly planning a few more trips, he was “feeling really good about us,” and then he called and broke up with me. Aren’t I entitled to a discussion of some sort? Am I focusing my hurt on the wrong thing? I take it he has a history of choking at deep intimacy, but this sudden dumping makes me feel like I was deluded the whole time. It hurts.
A: There’s no way to break up with someone that doesn’t hurt, but being blindsided can be especially painful. I don’t think of it as a question of entitlement, but I do think it’s perfectly fine for you to say, “I want to be able to have a discussion.” It may be that he had private reservations he didn’t want to share with you; it may be that there were warning signs you missed; it may be that he suddenly got cold feet and chickened out at the thought of having a painful breakup conversation. You could, I think, ask him if he’d be available to have a slightly longer talk about what went wrong—over email or text, even, if calling sounds too painful. But if he doesn’t respond, I don’t think you should waste your time trying to chase him down. The sudden and abrupt end to your relationship doesn’t mean that you were deluded. It just means that he didn’t know how to have a difficult conversation.
Q. Re: Breaking point: The letter writer hasn’t listed a single good, rational reason why. She admits that it is “irrational.” Her husband has responsibly listed pros and cons. She is too immature to have another child. Does she just like being the center of attention while she’s pregnant? Why would the letter writer want to risk her marriage? Her husband should insist on using a condom or have no sex at all, since she can’t be trusted not to get pregnant. Previously, he told her he didn’t want a second child, but she got pregnant anyway.
A: I agree that the letter writer’s husband should be very careful about their birth-control method, if they are indeed still having sex at this point. I’m not so worried about establishing divisions between “rational” and “irrational” desires. I think it’s meaningful and important to talk about desires that aren’t rooted in logistics, but I am worried that the letter writer is framing her own feelings as so big and all-encompassing that they cannot be discussed or reasoned with, only resisted or given into. That’s both untrue and unhealthy.
Parenting Advice From Care and Feeding
Q. Who is Papa? Four years ago my sister had a baby, and when he was learning how to talk, his grandparents, my parents, became “GoGo” and “Papa.” My husband and I now have a 16-month-old daughter. I’m known as Mama, her dad is Dada, and she’s just starting to call my parents GoGo and Papa at everyone’s encouragement but my husband’s. He cringes every time anyone refers to my dad as Papa but has never said anything to my parents—instead, he privately fumes to me that he thinks “Papa” should be his name. I told him he needs to speak to my dad if he has an issue with it; he tells me I need to since it’s my dad and it would be “a lot nicer coming from me.” He wants to start encouraging my daughter to call him Papa, but I just don’t agree. I don’t see why he needs to be referred to as Dada and Papa when our daughter has already settled on Dada for him. Even my cousin’s kids refer to my parents as GoGo and Papa, it’s just become who they are.
My daughter is starting to name all her family members in pictures, and when she gets to my parents, my husband says, “That’s Grandma and Grandpa.” I can see the confusion on her face. I feel so torn. I don’t want to make what I feel like are unnecessary waves in my family, but I also want to support my husband, which he says I’m not doing. I told him I love him, but I feel like he should let this one go. Please help.
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