Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Husband had affair with former student: Several weeks ago, I discovered that my husband of 12 years had been having an affair for six months with one of his former high school students, who is now 21. It was an emotional and sexual affair, and he took great risks, such as taking two days off work to spend time with her and going to see her on his lunch breaks and planning periods.
He has been a teacher for a decade and has always been liked by his students, co-workers, and administration. However, after an infidelity early in our relationship that centered around my husband only being able to get his self-worth from attention from women, I expressed my uneasiness about him teaching older high schoolers. He was, of course, offended, and he still says that he has never been attracted to one of his students, although I’m unsure of what I believe now, with him dating someone only six years older than our teenage daughter. His administrators know about the affair, but because she was not a current student, his job is secure.
I have several problems with him continuing to teach as we work through this, even though he says that what sounds a lot like a midlife crisis is over and “the fog has lifted.” We have been in marriage counseling for four months, the same length of time I have been seeing my personal therapist. He has seen his therapist for two years and is now being honest with him about everything, so I do have hope, but I don’t want to place unnecessary stumbling blocks in our path. We have three children, and I want to preserve our family. My issues with him teaching are: The line has already been crossed once, although not as egregiously as it would have been with a current student. Still, I fear that this will make it less taboo and easier to rationalize if an opportunity with a junior or senior presents itself. With a midlife crisis it is so common to end up with a much younger person, and high school is full of girls on the cusp of womanhood and at their physical peak. They’re also usually idiots about men, and I’ve seen a lot of easily impressed teens fawning over how smart or cool or different a teacher is, perfect for an ego that needs stroking. Plus, there’s the age-old teacher-and-student fantasy on both ends to consider, although I can’t imagine what someone that age would see sexually in someone who is almost 40. He has said that he would change careers to keep our marriage but does not want to because much of his identity is tied up in being a teacher. Am I correct that this is not a good environment for him? I believe that he is sincere about wanting to manufacture his own positive self-esteem rather than having someone feed it to him through attention or sex, but there’s no reason to make it harder than it has to be.
I am also worried about his drinking, which had been an issue years ago, with him blacking out nightly until I begged him to stop. It is his way of relaxing now, he says, but he started meeting this former student out at bars and formed the relationship with her there. Alcohol makes people more flirty, sexual, open with secrets, and it makes sharing inappropriate things so much easier. Bars are where single people go to get laid, especially in the city that we live in. It just seems like such a bad idea for that to be a favorite pastime, especially because the infidelity early in our relationship was partially blamed on being high and not thinking clearly.
He’s taking responsibility for his actions, and I’m letting him, but teaching high schoolers and continuing to drink just seem like unnecessary risks to take while we’re trying to save our marriage and family. Am I wrong?
A. Oh, wow. There’s so much wrong here that I’m not quite sure where to start. You’re treating this situation as if your husband were a mostly good man beset by tempting, lustful sirens, and not a blackout alcoholic who’s abused his position as a teacher to groom his students.
This is not a situation that calls for couples’ counseling and fretting about limits. You need to contact the school board today so they can investigate whether there are other students your husband has groomed or possibly abused. The fact that the administration knows he’s dated at least one former student and hasn’t asked any follow-up questions is deeply concerning. He’s saying things like “the fog has lifted” as if turning 40 naturally meant otherwise-rational men would suddenly become seized by an uncontrollable outside force that made them meet former high school pupils in bars. You ask if you’re correct in thinking a high school is “not a good environment” for him, but I urge you to flip that question: Is your husband providing a good environment for teenage students? That he’s somehow managed to convince you he cheated on you at least twice—once with a former student—due to his “low self-esteem” is a remarkable act of deception, and you don’t need to buy this cock-and-bull story. Your husband is not taking responsibility for his actions. He hasn’t changed careers. He won’t stop drinking or going to bars. He’s getting away with everything he wants to.
Your marriage is so much more broken than you’re able to admit to yourself right now. This is not an honest man you can trust. This language about underage girls being at their “physical peak” is absolutely horrifying, and the fact that teenagers are vulnerable and easy to impress is not “perfect” for an ego that needs stroking—those are marks a predator looks for in their prey. Your husband is not teaching a group of fully competent adult seductresses; he’s teaching children, and you cannot try to unload any of his guilt onto them. Please, please encourage the school board to look into his history with students. Fire your therapist and find one who will help you file for a divorce and sort through the lies your husband has been feeding you.
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Q. Death and social media: My great-grandmother passed away yesterday. Even though it was “expected,” I am still wrought with grief. She was the one who raised me. (One biological parent is deceased, and the other wanted nothing to do with me.) She was with my grandmother and aunt at the time of her passing. They notified me right away and asked that I not say anything on social media until my great-uncle and my great-grandmother’s siblings were contacted.
One of the sisters called her daughters, and this daughter immediately took to social media. Soon after, these extended family members started creating elaborate posts about how she was like their mother or grandmother and garnered a lot of sympathy. I was very upset that they had done this before all of her immediate family had been contacted. To add to it, I posted a little memorial and got responses from these family members like, “Yes, Beatrice, my Aunt Hilda was special to many people.”
I don’t know if I am just too emotional right now, but I feel that they are trying to use my great-grandmother’s death to get attention. This is something for which I would have looked to my great-grandmother for advice; I feel so lost without her. Should I ignore my distant family or block them on social media? What do I say to them at the funeral?
A. I think you should mute them on social media and be polite but distant at the funeral. I’m so sorry that you lost your great-grandmother, and it must be painful to see relatives who may not have been as close with her rushing to say something publicly and get the “first fruits” of online sympathy. It’s completely understandable that you feel both hurt and misunderstood, and I think taking a little space from your extended family so you can grieve around people who really care for you and are prepared to listen is the right idea.
Q. Sister’s rent: My mother and stepdad decided my 18-year-old half-sister needed to pay rent to stay under their roof. She only graduated high school last year, works a minimum wage job, is struggling to continue her education, and has no car. I live within walking distance of her workplace, so I bought a twin bed and set her up in my breakfast nook with a curtain. I made a deal that if she obeys the house rules, keeps her grades up, pays for her food, and saves her money, she could move in with me. I want her to be able to get a head start in her adult life.
Now my mother and stepdad are upset with me for “interfering” with their authority over my sister. Both of them work and no major events have occurred in the past few years. They aren’t helping my sister with school and don’t need to pump her for money. She is a good, quiet kid, and very smart. My father wanted the best for me and directed me to go for higher education despite the personal cost to him. I’ve had personal differences with my stepdad in the past (he is big on respect “owed” to him), but this is poisoning my relationship with my mother—she complains I am “overstepping.” I am biting my tongue about my stepdad and her treating my sister as their personal piggy bank. How do I deal with my mother here?
A. I wish I could go back in time and encourage you and your sister not to tell your mother or stepfather the details of your arrangement, because there’s no reason for your mother to know how much your sister is or isn’t paying you in rent. This is a kind and generous act, and I hope it helps your sister graduate with minimal debt. In the meantime, all you need to say to your mother is this: “I know we disagree on the subject, but [sister] is 18 and this works well for both of us. Let’s talk about something else,” before lightly changing the subject. If she keeps trying to bring the conversation back to your sister’s housing, keep your tone friendly and repeat yourself so that she’s not able to get purchase on the topic.
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Q. “Favorite uncle” molested my wife: My wife and I have been married for about five years; we married later in life. (I’m 45, she’s 37.) The first time I met the “favorite uncle,” I noticed an odd connection between him and my wife. We were very new into the relationship but it struck me in a certain way, so I asked her about it. She was elusive but inferred that he had abused her. She didn’t disclose the timing or details, so I let it go. We kept seeing him at all of the family events and the next time, I noticed it again. I asked my wife again and got a bit more detail but was basically left with “It was a very dark time for me.”
I don’t want to dredge things up for my wife, but I get the feeling that they had some sort of relationship and I’m not sure how recently. I also get the feeling that the uncle had groomed my wife since childhood but am unsure when this all started and ended. All in all, the family treats this guy as a golden one and I have to just deal with it at every family event. Last month at a wedding, this uncle grabbed my wife’s hands and pulled her onto the dance floor. I cut in and pulled her back, to everyone’s dismay. (My wife was thankful—or that’s what she said.)
I’m an understanding guy, but it kills me to have to deal with this man. Right now, I’m lying on a hotel couch at 4:30 a.m. typing this after having spent the evening with this abuser for another family gathering. I’ve left out so many details and am willing to fill them in, but I just need help. I’m so close to blowing the lid off it all, but we have kids, I love my wife, her parents live a town away, their family is tight, etc. What do I do?
A. I can imagine the pain and frustration of having to see this man while also not knowing exactly what happened. Your guiding principle here, however, should be your wife—since she’s the person who was abused, and the rest of her family either doesn’t know or failed to protect her, she has a right to set the terms of engagement. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your own feelings about the subject, and if you need to occasionally limit the time you spend with her extended family for the sake of your own sanity, I think you should do so.
But the real work that needs to happen right now is between you and your wife. You’ve pressed her on the issue and she’s been reluctant to open up, and part of you seems concerned that you’re pressuring her yourself, which I think is why you wrote that she said she was thankful you interrupted their dance but that you weren’t quite sure. It may be that part of her felt relieved and another part of her felt terrified that you were going to make a scene—and that if that scene ever happens, her family won’t be there to back her up. It can sometimes happen that when someone shares the details of her abuse with a partner for the first time, that partner’s (well-meaning and justifiable) shock and anger can take precedence over the victim’s wishes, and the person who survived the abuse then has to do the additional work of calming her partner down and restraining the partner from acting impulsively.
Whatever she may or may not be thinking, I think you should approach it like this: “You’ve told me a little bit about what your uncle did to you. I love you so much, and I’m so sorry he hurt you. I’m grateful you shared this with me, and I want you to know that I won’t share this with anyone else and that I want to be as helpful as I can to you. I don’t want you to talk about it any more than you want to, but if you ever want to talk to me about it, please know that I’m available to hear more. And if you ever decide that you don’t want to spend time with him, or if there’s any way I can help run interference when you have to see him with the rest of your family to take some of the pressure off you, please let me know. I won’t make decisions on your behalf without your permission, and I will let you take the lead here.”
Q. Short and sweet: Despite being a longtime reader, I ignored all of your advice and started dating my co-worker. (I’m a woman, he’s a man. We work in different departments and are equals in terms of seniority. Our office has no policy against dating, and in our industry this tends to happen a lot.) We’ve been together for six months and I feel so lucky to have found such an amazing friend and partner. We fit easily into each other’s respective friend groups, and most of the feedback I have gotten on our relationship is excitement and happiness for us.
However, there is a small contingent of mostly male co-workers who seem to take issue with me being four inches taller than him and have developed a habit of pointing out our size difference with small digs whenever possible. I am tall for a woman, at 6 feet, and I’m also wondering if the fact I play rugby—a full-contact, “masculine” sport—adds to their discomfort.
The height difference is new to both of us but has been a non-issue since we started dating. While my boyfriend’s reaction is usually to brush it off, mine comes off as combative. For example, at our holiday party, a male co-worker who was also shorter than me commented, “I didn’t know this was an option for me” while gesturing to our height difference, to which I immediately responded, “It wasn’t.” Do you have any good responses to height-difference comments that are firm but not hostile?
A. I’m glad things are working out for the two of you, and I’d give anything to put an end to facile comments about other people’s heights. (Tall people know that they are tall! Short people know that they are short! Pointing out an obvious physical feature someone cannot change is both rude and boring.) For what it’s worth, your co-worker who called you “an option for [him]” at the holiday party was way out of line, and your response was totally justified. If you want to remain professional about slightly less objectionable remarks, I think “Please don’t make comments about my height” is just fine and gets the point across. “A lot of people feel the need to point out my height to me. I wish they wouldn’t” is perhaps a shade more obvious, and there’s always “You seem uncomfortable with my height. I hope you’re able to make your peace with it eventually,” delivered as blandly and unconcernedly as possible.
Q. Confused mom: My 13-year-old daughter just came out to me. I’m completely fine with her being gay, but now I don’t know how to handle her sleepover get-togethers. She is dating a girl she has been friends with for years and with whom she had frequent sleepovers in the past. They are both really good kids and I trust both of them. I would never want either of them to ever feel pressured into doing anything they don’t want to and I’m wondering if sleeping (literally sleeping) together will add extra stress and pressure for them. If she were dating a boy, the answer would be absolutely no to a sleepover. My gut tells me it should be the same answer now. I can’t talk to the other mom because the other girl has not come out yet to her family.
A. “No sleepovers with someone you’re dating” is a perfectly appropriate rule for any 13-year-old, regardless of their orientation. Your gut is right on the money here.
Q. Age-gap issues: I’m in a position that I never thought I’d be in. Currently, I am living with my boyfriend, “Ken,” of almost a year, and our relationship is fun, relaxed, and loving. However, we are a full 36 years apart. I’m 24, he’s 60. I’m an incredibly self-conscious person and was nervous about how my friends would react. Luckily, most accepted him despite their initial shock and skepticism. My parents took it really hard. I’ve always had an open and healthy relationship with my parents, but my mom said that she had “never seen my dad so angry.” This affected me deeply, and when I shared these feelings with Ken, he felt that my parents were being irrational and that they needed to learn to “accept that I am an adult.” However, when they interact at family gatherings, Ken and my parents are friendly and civil to each other, which is a huge blessing.
The real problem is this: For multiple reasons, I cannot see Ken and I lasting as a couple long-term. Having children is important to me. Ken says that he would be open to having more children. (He has a daughter who is two years my senior, and we get along well.) But my common sense tells me that this is not an option—not only due to his age, but also the fact that Ken’s health is less than optimal.
This leads me to another point: He’s a cigarette smoker, a recreational (not heavy) pot smoker, and was a heavy drinker for most of his adult life. His drinking now is moderate (i.e., no more than one or two beers a night), but on weekends, he has a tendency to drink much more and behave boisterously and obnoxiously (yelling, making crude jokes, et cetera). He’s never violent, but when this happens in public, I find it extremely embarrassing. Ken seems to have it in his head that he’ll be strong and healthy until he’s 105 (his exact words). I’ve told him that this isn’t realistic, but he won’t accept it.
A few of my friends, my family, and my gut all tell me that I should eventually break it off with him. There was one time several months ago when I almost did, but when I saw how hurt he was, my resolve failed me. We simply talked about it and ended up staying together. Hurting someone you love and who treats you well is never easy, but I know I need to get up the guts to do it. Any advice?
A. I am not so sure that Ken does treat you well! He has talked you into ignoring your own intuition, turns into a drunken boor every weekend, has you anxiously counting his drinks and trying to reassure yourself that things are getting better, and has you saying things like “He’s never violent, but … ” In a good relationship, no one has to say someone is never violent, because that is a given. The fact that you’re including that caveat means that at least some of the time you worry he’s going to start being violent.
Yes, you’re an adult, and I’m not suggesting you need to start thinking of yourself as a victim, but it’s absolutely possible that part of the reason Ken sought you out was because of your relative youth and inexperience, and he wants to be able to talk you out of breaking up with him, because he’d rather have you unhappy with him than happy without him. I think you should talk to your friends and family and ask for their help and support in breaking up with him. Tell them that you’ve wanted to for a little while now but that he’s talked you out of it, and you want their help going through with your decision. Maybe have someone available to pick you up and take you out afterward once you’ve had the conversation so you have a natural escape route, rather than spending hours going back-and-forth with him until he’s worn you down on the subject. It sounds like the other people in your life have tried hard to be open-minded on the subject, so I don’t think you have to worry they’ll say they “told you so” or judge you for having been with him. Tell them you’re ready to end it but that you need help, and I think you’ll find you have a lot of people ready to help you move on from this relationship.
Q. Update: Just Want to Do Right: Thank you for publishing my letter. I wanted to let you know that I told my wife what I had done with her pictures before you even published the letter. I think she was actually relieved a bit and did not ask me to dispose of them. I’m a good enough IT guy that the pics won’t be found and accessed unless I do it. I still don’t know whether I should encourage my wife to let her secret loose, so I haven’t said anything to her about that. I guess I still don’t know what’s the right thing to do. Do I let her take that secret to her grave without saying anything?
A. I’m so glad you told your wife! It’s really promising that she had a fairly neutral response and didn’t ask you to get rid of them, so I definitely think you have grounds to bring the subject up again. Let her know that you’ll keep the pictures secure unless and until she asks you to destroy them, and ask if she’s considered telling anyone else. Don’t press the issue if she’s skittish, but let her know that if she ever wants to talk about it more, even just with you, you’re here to listen and help her talk through her options.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
My husband and I have been married for 28 years, but our relationship has been at a brick wall for more than half of the marriage. For the past four years, we have lived under the same roof but completely separately, essentially as housemates. Up until now, I have made the decision to stay in the marriage because A) we have two daughters, both in their early 20s, and B) my husband is a pastor and I was once concerned about his image in the church community if we were to separate. Personally, I am done putting up a façade. I am ready to move on from not only the marriage, but also the church community, but ultimately I do want to be the bigger person and respect my husband’s image. How do I move on from the church in a respectful manner?
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