Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Mother: I was abused without my mother ever raising her hand at me. I had to justify my existence to the mother who created me—too “tired” to cook dinner or do the dishes, she would scream at me to do it at 8. Any extra money I made raking leaves or shoveling snow or other side hustles got robbed from me because I was “eating her out of house and home.” She charged me “rent” as soon as I turned 18 despite the fact that I was still in high school. I managed to get into college (without any support or interest or help), and the “rent” turned into her shaking me down for any loose change as soon as she spent all her cash. The turning point came when her ex-con boyfriend broke into my room trying to find money and wrecked everything. I came home, and he took a swing at me when I objected; I ended up breaking his nose. My mother shrieked at me to get out or she would call the police. It was like the heavens parted and I saw her for what she was, told her off, and left. I haven’t talked to her since. My extended family was OK seeing my mother emotionally abuse me and steal from her only son, but I “owed” her forgiveness and a reconciliation. I don’t talk to them.
My problem is my girlfriend. She comes from a nice, normal family where kids are not in a constant state of debt by virtue of having been born. My mother contacted her on social media and sold her a sob story. Now she keeps bringing up me “making things right.” We keep fighting about this. I ask if she thinks I am a liar and if what my mother did to me was OK in her books. She says no. I ask her if my mother physically harmed me, would she pressure me to forgive her? She says no. I ask her if emotional abuse is lesser than physical in her view. She says no. Then another guilt trip leaves the station again. Our last fight left my girlfriend crying. I hate this, but I am not going back to being my mother’s personal piggy bank and punching bag. I don’t want her in my life. I love my girlfriend. I love her family. How do I get through to her?
A: I’m so sorry that your girlfriend has been unable to let this go, and I’m glad that you haven’t given in to her tears or guilt trips, because I think cutting your mother out of your life is the best thing you could possibly have done for yourself. I understand that you don’t want to end this relationship, and I hope that it can be salvaged, but it’s kind of up to your girlfriend because she’s the one who needs to change. The best way to encourage her to break the cycle, I think, is to say this: “We’ve talked about my mother a lot, and even though you’ve always agreed that I’m telling the truth about the emotional abuse I experienced and can recognize that I’m happier now that my mother isn’t in my life, somehow that gets lost in the shuffle and you find ways to bring her up again. I don’t want to argue with you about her and I’m not going to. I’m asking you not to mention her to me again, or to suggest I reconcile with her. If you bring her up, I’m not going to have that conversation—I’ll leave the room if I have to, although I hope it won’t come to that. You don’t have to understand or agree with my choice, but you do need to respect it if this relationship is going to work.”
Q. Whistle: We have moved in with my fiancé’s family so we can save money for a down payment on a house (we pay utilities). When his father wants to get my attention, he whistles and snaps his fingers like he is calling a dog to heel. I hate it. I immediately hear the Kill Bill sirens. I have asked him politely to call my name instead. He claims I don’t hear him from across the room, and he doesn’t want to get up from his chair to get my attention (or get his own beers). I am the one home earliest, so I make dinner. He is retired and does nothing all day. I have asked my fiancé to talk to his father, but it still is happening. We have to live here for at least another six months until we can buy our own place. I might snap soon.
A: Do not respond to whistles or snaps. Leave the room, take a fake phone call, yawn theatrically; do not give him your attention until he uses your name. Treat him like a dog—bad behavior gets no reaction, good behavior gets you to respond.
In the long run, now might be a good time to ask yourself if you really want to get married (and buy a house!) with someone who has apparently seen his father snap his fingers to get your attention and hasn’t done anything about it. You say you asked your fiancé to talk to his father about it, which means that you had to ask him about it, which means that his response the very first time it happened wasn’t to immediately shut it down and stand up for you. What else might your fiancé ask you to put up with from his family if the two of you spend your lives together?
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Q. Friendship to fixation? I’ve been friends with “Kristin” for almost 20 years—starting when we lived in the same city, soon after her marriage. We were very close for a long while. That said, I always had the sense our friendship was more important to her than it was to me—but it seemed like a minor imbalance. (Important note: I was single almost this whole time.) Then, three years ago, in my new city, I met a great guy; we’re now engaged. But from the moment I got a partner, Kristin began acting oddly. She sent presents, for no reason, sometimes relatively expensive stuff like clothes or jewelry. She began asking for us to do weekly two-hour Skype chats, which I had neither time nor inclination for. Her comments about my relationship veer widely from “overly enthusiastic” to “foreboding.” Obviously, my new relationship status threatens her, though we were in as close contact after I met him as we were before (at least, after I moved). Finally, last week, when I mentioned I was coming to my old city on business, she went into hyperdrive: repeatedly asking me to stay with her instead of the convention hotel (despite a bad location), saying several times she’s so glad I’m coming to see HER, like work is incidental—and then getting angry when I couldn’t guarantee meeting her for dinner every single night! Am I nuts for feeling like this is a weird fixation? At this point I don’t want to meet her at all because she’s acting entitled to my time, and trying to claim an importance in my life she’s honestly never had. But how can I ghost a friend of two decades? How can I raise this subject with her productively, if I even can? If this isn’t about my partner, what is it about? (If it’s relevant, I’m straight; Kristin is bisexual and in a monogamous marriage with a man.)
A: It’d be one thing if you’d gotten really distant at the start of your new relationship and Kristin had said “I miss you, I feel like you don’t make time for me, can we get together every once in a while without our partners?” But sending expensive presents and asking for weekly Skype sessions, not to mention pretending like a work trip is in fact a vacation to come see her, is totally unjustified. I do think, though, that it’s not worth your time to speculate about whether Kristin has a crush on you; plenty of straight women have similarly fraught friendships and experience profound jealousy without romantic or sexual motives coming into play. You have every right to say to her, “I’ve been really bothered by the change in your behavior since I got engaged. Sending me expensive gifts and trying to get me to rearrange my work schedule every single night on a business trip is too much, and you need to stop. I care about you, but you’ve been overly demanding of my time and it makes me want to pull away.” That may very well mean you two have a friendship-ending fight or at the very least cool off for a while, but it’s better and more honest than ghosting her after two decades. It will be productive if you effectively communicate that her expectations are unreasonable and you’re not going to be able to meet them. Don’t judge its productivity based on whether she agrees with you or thinks you have a point.
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Q. Not a kid: My daughter got pregnant at 17. She is 19 now, and her son is 3. They live with her mother, my ex. I got transferred to another state; my wife decided she was done, divorced me, and teenagers get to discard custody agreements because they want to go skiing. It was a huge source of conflict between my ex and me over her permissive parenting—letting our daughter drink and get high “as long as it was only in the house” and letting the boyfriend sleep over. I have always paid the child support and my alimony. I bought my grandson his crib, car seat, and stroller; I got my daughter a car. I want a good life for them, but I want a guarantee it will not be wasted. I have offered to completely fund my daughter if and only if she applies to school, gets a part-time job, and does not date.
Right now, it is A-OK for her to go out and party every weekend because of “stress.” She leaves her son alone with his grandmother and vanishes from Friday afternoon until Sunday night. Her mother sees nothing wrong with this. According to our conversations, I am “controlling” for expecting our daughter to act like a mother and parent her own son, “She is only a kid after all.” She is not a child; she has a child. I’d rather she concentrates herself on this one she has rather than try and make another. I am tired of the fights and accusations. I am tired of my grandson being used as the knife to keep me opening my wallet while they wail about money difficulties and never show proof. (I pay bills and don’t just give cash.) I want my daughter to be educated, respected, and independent. I can’t force her be that way. Am I out of line here? Out of touch?
A: I can understand your frustration at your ex’s permissiveness, but that doesn’t mean that by virtue of taking the opposite stance you’re being the reasonable one in this situation. It’s one thing to want to make sure the money you send goes toward something like paying for classes or baby supplies, but it’s inappropriate and overly controlling to tell someone you’ll only offer them financial support if they stop dating and become celibate—especially when that person is your daughter. I agree that your daughter is not a child, but you don’t get to decide when and if she has more children. I think it’s absolutely fine to stick to only paying for tangible things like college, car insurance, groceries, baby clothes, what have you, and you have every right to cut a conversation short if your ex or your daughter try to make you feel guilty for not sending more money. But beyond that, trying to impose your vision for her future from several states away is not likely to increase anyone’s happiness.
Q. Between my boyfriend and I, we could be going to a wedding practically every other month: We have been in that situation for the past year. All his cousins are getting married, as are many of mine. The thing is, I would be content the rest of my life staying in reading and the like. My cousins know this and are happy with inviting me if I can make it, and me sending a card otherwise. My boyfriend claims to be close to his cousins whenever we start the discussion on one of his upcoming weddings, but the end reason is always that his sister isn’t going and he feels obligated to go since his dad passed when he was younger. He can’t afford these weddings without me footing part of the bill, especially with one coming up out of the country. Add onto this that I don’t like weddings—I barely even want to attend my own down the road. Recently work has been very stressful, and I mentioned scheduling a staycation with some of my vacation days, and he’s using the weddings as a counterpoint to me using them. Weddings aren’t a vacation for me. They’re more stressful than work. I don’t want to use vacation days to see people I don’t know get married because he feels obligated to go. I don’t mind him going without me. I don’t mind going to one a year. I don’t want to do more than that. How can I get this through to him? It feels like we have this conversation every time a save the date comes in the mail.
A: You do not need to get through to him; you only need to tell him, “I’m going to take one vacation this year that’s not based around going to a wedding,” and keep him informed of the dates. If that means you miss a single one of his cousin’s weddings, that’s fine and not a dereliction of relationship duty.
Q. Screen Time Argument: I need help settling an ongoing argument! My husband and I live in a small-ish apartment and, as such, we often both settle in our living room space to watch TV and unwind after work. Sometimes, I’ll pull out my phone to check messages, scroll through Instagram, etc. as part of my “unwinding after work” process. My husband thinks it’s rude for me to be on my phone when we’re together like this, and will ask me why I’m on my phone instead of paying attention to whatever show we have on. I disagree that casually watching TV after work constitutes “together time” as we often just put it on in the background, and I don’t think it’s rude for me to occasionally also be on my phone during these times. I do always put away my phone when we’re eating dinner, at restaurants, having true one-on-one time, etc. What do you think?
A: I don’t think there’s an objective answer to this one; I agree with you that putting your phone away during dinner and one-on-one time is the right thing to do, but could go either way on the TV-watching issue. I will say that I often underestimate how much I’m looking at my phone when I have it out and in use, so it may be at least possible that what you think of as “occasional” feels a bit more like “constant” to someone who’s sitting next to you and not on their phone. (But you may be much better than I am at monitoring your own phone time! My experience is not universal, etc.) I think the best compromise here is probably to figure out how much time you plan to have your phone out and let him know, rather than just planning on using it indefinitely until the TV’s off—and occasionally suggesting watching a movie or doing something that requires slightly more attention and focus than just passively putting the TV on in the background.
Mostly, I think, it’s kind of a waste of time to try to argue about whether or not what you’re doing is universally “rude.” It’s really more of a question of how you and your husband can be available for one another and ask for what you want.
Q. Broken friendships: I have a friend who was a former co-worker that I used to be really close with. We would talk all the time, either at work or via texting, and we talked about everything: work, life, men, nothing was off-limits. Recently, for about the past six months, she has been sort of distant and closed off. I sometimes reach out and don’t get a response, and I feel like I can’t be as open with her as I’d like. Moreover, I just miss her. I miss the support that she was in my life and hearing about what’s going on in hers. Is there any way I can try to mend this friendship and get back to our BFF status?
A: I wish I had more details here! You say you usually talked all the time either at work or via text, which makes me wonder if you two ever actually spent much time together in person after hours or once you stopped sharing an office. It’s possible that what felt to you like significant closeness felt more to her like a slightly oversharing relationship with a co-worker that naturally dwindled after you two stopped working together. But that may not be the case at all—it could be that she’s going through a tough time and doesn’t know how to ask for help, or that she’s simply gotten busier than she used to be and hasn’t realized she’s been neglecting some of her friendships. Whatever the case, you definitely have grounds to check in. Tell her that you miss her, and offer her an opportunity for being more honest with you about her recent distance. I think calling her would be best, but if she doesn’t pick up the phone, you can say it over text: “I’ve noticed it’s harder to get a hold of you over the last six months, and I really miss getting to talk to you. I hope if I’ve said anything to offend you that you would let me know, because I’d hate to have hurt your feelings. If you’re going through anything difficult right now and there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.” If she avoids the question or doesn’t respond, you have a pretty clear answer, I think, but hopefully she takes the opportunity to open up and tell you what’s going on with her.
Q. I’m poor but I was just gifted money with restriction: I am a single parent struggling financially in a very expensive region of the U.S. I live frugally and often decline invitations from friends to go out because my checking account is usually empty. Recently my supportive and loving parents gave me $2,000 with one stipulation: that the money can’t be spent on living expenses but must be used to treat myself and my child to a vacation. I’m afraid I will get blowback from friends and peers when they learn that I was able to “afford” a trip somewhere that would be above my paygrade. To complicate matters, my sibling (who earns far more than I do) received nothing from my parents, and I don’t want them to be jealous or bitter. How should I explain the situation to everyone without being judged or without causing family strife?
A: Don’t explain it. Take the trip, enjoy yourself, and don’t discuss the details with people who you think won’t be happy for you. If anyone is intrusive enough to ask, “How could you afford [X]?” just say, “I’m really happy I was able to take my first vacation in a long time and don’t want to go into details about my finances, thanks.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week, and be nice to your sisters.
Q. Breastfeeding Mother-in-Law: I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying, and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn’t bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We’re at an impasse. Should we call the police? I’m hesitant to let her near my son again.
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