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. Crocodile tears girlfriend: My girlfriend of 10 months and I have pretty different upbringings: She has rich, divorced parents; an elderly aunt raised me. I never gave our backgrounds much thought until recently, but I have noticed a pattern. Several times when my girlfriend has fallen behind on her obligations, she will call up her mother or father and get them to send her money. The first time it was a car repair bill, which seemed reasonable. But then it was the musical festival, the out-of-town concert, and then a huge shopping trip. Last time, I was helping fix her computer and her roommate complained about late rent. My girlfriend picked up the phone, dialed her dad, and started fake sobbing. He didn’t want to give her the money until she broke down: “You left me, you left me behind.” (Her dad remarried and moved away when she was in high school.) After the phone call, my girlfriend acted perfectly normal.
It left me uneasy. My girlfriend defended her actions by saying her parents “owed” her for the divorce. We ended up fighting about it; she called me out for “judging” her. We both are still in college but over 21. My parents were married and had me at this age. I would be embarrassed not to act like an actual adult when I am one. I do love my girlfriend, just not this sense of entitlement she has. She is smart, funny, and sweet when she wants to be, but she is hurting her parents, who have never been anything but kind and concerned. She made her mom cry.
I’ve had previous relationships with people who were abused by their parents. My girlfriend’s not in that situation. How do I deal with this? How do I talk to her about this? Am I overreacting and overreaching?
A. Part of me just wants to say: It’s been less than a year, you’re both in college, just break up. And that may eventually happen! But if you don’t want to call it quits just yet, that’s understandable. Look, “judging” isn’t the worst thing a person can do to another; if you saw her do something you think is wrong, judging is a pretty appropriate response. Your girlfriend seems to want to conflate “objecting to a pattern of behavior” with “saying she’s an eternally bad person who should be ashamed forever,” but that’s not the same thing. You say that your girlfriend is “sweet when she wants to be,” which is definitely cause for concern. You’ve seen her switch instantaneously from calm and collected to wounded and desperate in order to get what she wants from her parents, and you’re rightly concerned. I don’t think you need to start hounding her about it, but you shouldn’t apologize for objecting to it.
“I didn’t like what I saw, and while I can’t tell you what to do, I hope you find other ways to talk to your parents about your feelings” is a perfectly appropriate thing to say. If she keeps doing it and you find yourself growing less and less impressed with her character, it’s a perfectly appropriate reason to break up, too.
Q. Zumba teacher keeps filming my classes and that makes me uncomfortable: I love my Zumba class. I’ve been doing it three to four times a week for the past 18 months and for the first time in my life, I feel that I’m doing exercise that I adore. It’s no hardship to turn up and I love letting myself go in class.
My teacher is awesome, but I have a problem with his marketing methods, even though I understand it’s part of the job. He sometimes live-streams our class, or posts videos of our classes on his Instagram channel. I chose originally to ignore that—I don’t follow him on Instagram for that reason—because I don’t want to look at myself sweaty, red, and horrible. He started to tag me on Instagram, and I had to send him a nice message to say “I don’t mind about you filming the class but please don’t tag me, it makes me a bit self-conscious.” He said OK, but his attitude since has been cooler.
Now the gym that hosts the Zumba classes has gotten quite aggressive about its own Instagram marketing, and today they had one of the staff filming us during class. I’m really not OK about being filmed while I’m working out in general, and I’m especially annoyed about being filmed during Zumba because it’s all about letting go and not caring what you look like. I have a client-facing media job and I don’t want to be filmed or tagged in my workout gear, shimmying and sweating with wet hair and a puffy moon face.
I don’t want to be the killjoy here or make a problem for my nice teacher, but where do you draw the line and say: “I’m really uncomfortable with you filming me for your Instagram channel to market your business, when I haven’t given you permission to use my image?” I still want to go to this gym and do these classes without there being any awkwardness.
A: I don’t think your desire—to continue going to those classes, to stop the gym from their live-streaming/filming policy, and to guarantee zero awkwardness between this teacher and yourself—is achievable. I completely share your desire not to be filmed while working out, but it sounds like it’s not just this particular instructor but the entire gym that wants to use video in its marketing strategy.
You’d told your teacher that you didn’t mind him filming the class as long as he didn’t tag you, but it sounds like that’s changed, and you no longer want to be filmed at all (again, totally reasonable!). Talk to one of the gym’s managers or owners and ask if they can clarify their policy on filming, and whether or not they’d be willing to set aside a few classes specifically for people who don’t want to be recorded. That’s a pretty low-stakes request, and I hope the rest of the gym’s employees aren’t so thin-skinned that they get huffy when a client asks not to be recorded. If they’re totally non-responsive or act like not wanting to be filmed is a diva move, it might be a sign that it’s time to look for another gym; Zumba is pretty popular, and it shouldn’t be too hard to find another provider.
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Q. The partner of a sexual assault survivor: My girlfriend was sexually assaulted by a man recently. The assault left her with a lot of trauma. She is understandably triggered through intimate acts like kissing and physical contact, so we’ve decided to move slow. We sleep in different beds, don’t kiss on the lips, and we sidestep topics about sex and intimacy.
I am really in love with her for so many reasons, but I’m finding myself secretly frustrated by our inability to have sex or even talk about it. I feel bad about my frustration and don’t know how to express it. I know she is really battling this trauma. I know she wants to be close to me. I’m so happy she’s trying, but I sometimes find myself wanting more from her. Yes, I want to have sex, but more immediately, I want to overcome this frustration. How do I overcome my sexual frustration to be closer to her?
A: Masturbation and therapy. Hopefully your girlfriend is already seeing a therapist after her assault, but you should be too, because you need to have a confidential space where you can share some of the unfiltered concerns, anxieties, and desires you don’t want to overwhelm your girlfriend with right now.
Your goal right now should be not be to find ways to share your sexual frustration with your girlfriend, but to manage it so that you’re able to offer her meaningful support that’s not undercut by agitation and unspoken-but-obvious pressure. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for experiencing sexual desire while she isn’t. Set aside time for yourself to fantasize, to get off, to stay in touch with your own body, so that you can be more present in the time you get to spend with your girlfriend. You can also acknowledge the fact that you two are currently sidestepping some big topics. That doesn’t mean you’re going to find a resolution instantly, but it will go a long way toward making it feel like they’re not forbidden. “I know right now we haven’t talked about what kinds of physical contact feel safe or imaginable for you, and you might not want to talk about that. If you ever do, I’m available. If you don’t want to, I won’t press the subject—I just want you to know it’s not off-limits if there’s something you want to tell me or ask me about. I love you.”
I can’t guarantee that this will mean your relationship will continue. It sounds like you’re working hard to support her and don’t want your own desires to take priority over her pain, but that you’re in need of support yourself, and I hope you can find a therapist who can help you with that as you two navigate this difficult chapter of your lives together—and I wish you the best.
Q. Juggling mental health: I was lucky after a very difficult year to find two amazing friends who I’ve bonded with quickly. They’ve both recently been going through their own difficult time mental health–wise (I am too but in different ways), and I’ve been providing all the support I can, checking in with both of them daily and making sure that I’m providing love and a friendly ear, even pushing for therapy.
However, I’ve been finding myself getting depressed, having panic attacks on their behalf, and feeling my own mental health deteriorate. I don’t want to abandon them, but I find myself worrying when I don’t hear from them or getting jealous when they don’t spend time with me for mental health reasons, but tell me about other fun things they’re doing without me. I know these are my insecurities talking—the “I’ll have nothing left if I lose my only two friends” BS—but I still have these awful thoughts. I can’t figure out how to reconcile all these feelings. Also, therapy for me is out of the question for various reasons, which only makes this more difficult.
A: I’m really glad that you’ve found two great friends, especially after a difficult year, and I think you should spend a little time trying to add a third and a fourth friend to the roster when you don’t hear from the first two. It’s great that you have new friends, but my hope for you is that you’ll also develop a number of friendships with people who don’t need daily welfare check-ins or support finding therapists.
That’s not to say I think you should only be friends with people whose lives are already super-together and who never require any support! It’s just that if your only serious connections are with two people whose emotional well-being is still pretty shaky, that’s an awful lot of pressure to deal with. If there’s anyone in your life right now you’d like to be better friends with—a friendly coworker, or someone you occasionally talk to at a coffee shop or during your morning commute—why not ask them to get coffee sometime and try to develop new friendships? You can still maintain your closeness with the other two, but you won’t feel quite so bereft when both of them are busy. It’ll be an ongoing project, and it won’t quiet all of those anxieties immediately, but I think it’s the best long-term investment in your future peace and happiness.
Q. This is what happens when you snoop: My husband asked me to get something off his desk in his home office and while I was in there, I noticed he was in the middle of a chat session with someone he works with who I have met several times. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have even bothered to read anything on his screen as it’s not my business, but my name caught my eye and I snooped.
Basically, he was having a political discussion with a colleague and said some very unkind things about me as we have vastly different political views. To keep the peace at home, we rarely discuss politics and it’s worked for years. I know if I ask him about this he will immediately go on the defensive and not apologize, so I’ve been trying to just deal with it. My feelings are hurt because he really was quite mean and I’m embarrassed that his colleague now thinks I’m some sort of intellectually challenged loony. What do I do?
A: This is fairly low-level snooping—he asked you to look in his desk, and it’s pretty hard to ignore your own name. Clearly, rarely discussing politics with one another hasn’t been working as well for you two as you thought, because he’s just started discussing politics and you with other people. Acknowledge that you wish you’d found out another way but you can’t un-see what you saw, and don’t let him distract you with feigned outrage that you saw the screen he left open on his computer while bad-mouthing you to a colleague.
Have a fight about it! You two are long overdue a fight about this, and the polite fiction that politics just doesn’t exist in your marriage has effectively crumbled. You need to ask some difficult questions and be prepared to sit in some uncomfortable silences before you get honest answers. Does he do this a lot? How often has he talked about your political views with other people? Is he normally this disparaging of you? Meanwhile, ask yourself this: Why are you married to someone who you know won’t apologize for speaking cruelly about you? And why have you already decided that the best response to his defensiveness is to give up in advance?
My fear is that you’ll decide that your only option is to go back to pretending politics don’t divide the two of you, and that swallowing your hurt feelings is a price you’re willing to pay to keep the peace. Please don’t do that. You deserve to have these conversations, you deserve to be treated with respect, and you deserve a partner who knows how to apologize when he’s hurt you.
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Q. Re: Zumba teacher keeps filming my classes and that makes me uncomfortable: The letter writer might have given permission to use her image when she originally signed up for the gym or the class. She should feel free to talk to management, of course, but she might be surprised at some of the clauses in that contract we all usually skim over before signing.
A. Yes, ask to see a copy of the contract you signed when you joined the gym (I’m assuming she doesn’t keep a copy of it herself, but maybe she’s one of those super-together people who keeps records of their gym contracts to hand), and check whether it’s something you’ve already agreed to. Someone else suggested that the next time someone comes in to film the class, “Just stop participating, go to whomever is filming, and say, ‘I don’t want to be filmed, can you let me know when you’re done?’ ”
Q. Haunting dilemma: About five years ago, a close family member was driving in an alcoholic blackout and hit and mortally wounded an innocent person. There are other terrible details, including the agonizing days that the victim lingered, and the fact that my family member basically went into hiding. He was caught a couple of weeks later, after the victim died. Eventually, he got a tap on the wrist that included a court order to abstain from alcohol. He will probably never regain his license, either, but that is obviously nothing compared to the grief he caused.
At Christmas, I learned that despite the court order, this family member continues to drink. He has a network of enablers, including people who purchase booze for him and family members who rationalize that he is harmless, doesn’t drive—and if he is found out, he faces prison time. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I have all the empathy in the world for the alcoholic who still suffers, but no stomach at all for enabling. If something did happen—if this family member drinks and drives and kills again—I would never forgive myself for failing to report him to his probation officer when I had the chance to do so. Having written this all out now, it seems foolish that I would think of staying silent another moment, right?
Q. Dad’s new girlfriend: My father was extremely emotionally abusive to my mother for as long as I can remember, and the damage done was severe. Finally, they got divorced at my father’s request. We were hoping that after the divorce the abuse would stop, but it did continue somewhat through text messages. These messages are distressing and contain things like manipulative threats of suicide. Now my father has a new girlfriend. (He doesn’t think we know about the relationship but he isn’t very social media savvy, so it wasn’t hard to figure out, even without snooping.) This relationship seems to have distracted him enough that he doesn’t harass my mom as much as he used to. We are very happy that this new lady is in the picture so my mom can have a break.
I am starting to worry about the girlfriend, though. It seems like they are getting serious, and she probably has no idea what she is getting into. My father hides his abusive streak well, and she thinks he is great. What are my responsibilities to the girlfriend? If this continues, I would like to somehow be there for her, but she doesn’t even know I know about her; I assume we will eventually be introduced. Should I wait this out? And once we are introduced, is there something I can discreetly say to let her know she has people she can come to if things go badly? On the other hand, this takes so much pressure off my mom.
A. I’m so sorry that your father has hurt you and your mother like this for years. I’m not sure how old you are, so this answer may change slightly if you’re still a minor and your father shares custody with your mother, but in the long run I think your best strategy is to stop talking to your father, block his number, and take care of yourself.
He does not deserve to have a relationship with you, and the fact that you, his child, are worrying about how to protect the grown woman he’s dating says volumes about how much he’s made you feel responsible for his bad behavior over the years. I want you and your mother to be able to have “a break” from your father that doesn’t depend on his getting distracted by another person. I’m concerned for this woman, too, but my primary concern is for you; she’s an unrelated adult and has more options for getting away from him right now than you do. Focus on getting as much distance from your father right now as you can, whether that be blocking his number (if that’s financially and logistically possible), speaking to a school counselor, seeking a therapist if you’re out of school, making social plans that don’t include your father, or some combination of all of the above. Please don’t feel like your job is to stay involved in your abusive father’s life so that you can warn other women he may go on to abuse. You deserve space and the chance to heal yourself.
Q. Re: Juggling mental health: Being available is one thing, but I am struck by the fact that you contact them daily to ask about their mental health. Is there any possibility that by so regularly checking in with them, you are reducing them to just their diagnoses and that is why they sometimes choose to do fun things without you? There is no indication they want to revisit their issues so often with you. Maybe they want to be able to just go to a movie with you without a referendum on their mental health that day.
A. That’s certainly a possibility! It did seem more the case that these friends were just sometimes busy and the letter writer needed help dealing with feelings of rejection during the normal course of a friendship, but absolutely, if the only times the letter writer is contacting them is to ask how they’re doing and ask for a wellness referendum, they might feel a bit overwhelmed. If you never ask these friends about what books they’re reading or to talk about something light, definitely consider switching up your topics of conversation.
Q. Monogamy, is that for me? My boyfriend and I have been together for about two years. We have our ups and downs, but for the most part it’s a great relationship. I know that we love each other, and we’ve discussed getting married in the next few years. However, things have become a little monotonous and he’s been acting indifferent toward me more and more.
My issue is that I cannot stop thinking about sleeping with other men. There are a few guys in my friend circle that I know are interested in me sexually. I do some light flirting but maintain boundaries to be respectful to my partner. However, my lust for these other men is outrageous! Sometimes I think I’m not cut out for monogamy. I’m feeling guilty and frustrated about these feelings. Is this normal or a sign that I’m in the wrong relationship?
A: It’s certainly normal to be flattered when we know someone finds us attractive. And it’s also normal to feel hurt and piqued when our partner starts behaving indifferently towards us, so the fact that these mental intrigues have ramped up with your partner’s increased distance make sense to me, too. But “Would I prefer a monogamous or open relationship” is a very separate question to “How do I talk to my partner about the fact that he’s become distant and emotionally unavailable?” All the openness in the world won’t make up for a primary partner who’s closed off and indifferent. Talk to him. Ask him what’s changed and why he’s checked out, and try to find out how you can re-prioritize one another—then you two can have a conversation about long-term monogamy. (And don’t feel guilty for not cheating on your boyfriend and setting appropriate boundaries when your friends flirt lightly with you.)
From How to Do It
My husband and I haven’t had intercourse in more than two years. When I first noticed our “slump,” he told me he was too busy and tired from work to have sex. After the first sexless year rolled by, he said he needed to lose weight to feel confident enough for sex. Since, we moved to a new city last year, and he has indeed lost weight and gotten a job that requires much less take-home work. Now at least he’ll use a vibrator on me every few months, but it’s not enough.
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