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. Trapped: I found out my boyfriend was cheating on me the same week his test results came back confirming he has cancer, a highly aggressive kind. I went from bawling my eyes out and planning on deleting his number to holding him on the couch as he fell apart weeping. He begged me to stay and forgive him. I didn’t know what to do. I told him I forgave him and that I still loved him. I don’t. The truth festers in the back of my mind every time I get stressed or have to come over to care for him or talk to his family. All of them knew he was cheating on me—his brothers would cover for him when he was out with this girl when I called up. His mother even told me to my face how thankful she is that we “patched things up” since the other girl wouldn’t be here like I have been.
My boyfriend is facing brutal sessions of chemo and my only escape is work. All our friends tell me how brave I am, but I feel like a fraud and a chump. If I had broken up with him immediately, I would have been home-free. If he hadn’t gotten sick, I could be publicly mad and then move on—and worse, I know if the shoe was on the other foot, he would have left me. I am trapped. I don’t want to make my boyfriend any sicker. I don’t want him to die, but I also don’t want to devote the next several months to playing nurse to him. If I leave him now, I will get crucified. I mentioned still being hurt by his infidelity to a friend I considered myself close to; she asked how I can feel that way when he has cancer. Please help me.
A: Oh, I’m so sorry. This is just unbearably painful, and I’m additionally sorry that you’ve been pressured by friends and your boyfriend’s family to stay in a humiliating, loveless relationship just because your boyfriend is ill. You need to leave. You get to leave. He is not alone in the world; if his brothers were willing to coordinate over helping him cheat on you, they’ll be able to coordinate taking him to doctor’s appointments and chemo sessions now that he actually needs their help. You will not make him sicker by leaving; you did not give him cancer, and you cannot make it worse.
Please line up a session with a therapist who can help you plan out just how you’ll leave and who you can call to be in your corner when you do. I understand that the optics of the situation feel overwhelming, and just saying, “Don’t worry if his family thinks you’re a monster for leaving him when he has cancer” might seem flippant or dismissive of the very real fear of being seen as a bad person. But you don’t have to see those people again, and you can’t force yourself to stay in a miserable situation just so they’ll think you’re a sweetheart. He will find material and emotional support from his family and friends. The doctors will treat his cancer. You cannot offer him anything they cannot.
Please tell your own friends just how hard this situation has been on you and how much you need their help and support as you end this relationship. I hope your friend who tried to dismiss your pain in light of your soon-to-be-ex’s cancer is an outlier, but if you do meet with that objection, all you need to say is this: “I’m absolutely devastated that he’s sick, and I’m so glad that he’s getting treatment. I hope he recovers and has a long and healthy life. But to be trapped in a loveless relationship without trust was absolutely killing me. I couldn’t be helpful to either him or myself. The timing was awful and caused us both a lot of pain; trust me when I say this was the best possible outcome.”
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Q. Coming out to my grandmas: After dating men for most of my adult life, I’ve had a girlfriend for the past eight months. My immediate family is overall accepting and gets along great with her. The problem is my mother is worried that my two 92-year-old grandmothers are too much “of a different generation” to handle learning about my queer relationship. She thinks that I should keep it secret from them to avoid their shock and judgment.
It hasn’t been too much of an issue thus far because any events where we’ve all been together have been larger social gatherings where having a “friend” around isn’t weird, but I am worried that if I keep this up, we’ll hit some bigger family holiday and I’ll have to choose to either not invite my girlfriend or knowingly incite family drama. I don’t want to go behind my mom’s back and tell them without letting her know, but I don’t want to keep my girlfriend out of family events until my grandmothers pass away either. What should I do? My girlfriend is a trans woman, and I think this complicates the issue a little because my mom is worried that if that’s part of the conversation at all, my grandmothers will be confused and potentially even less accepting.
A: Your mother can offer you input about what she thinks your grandmothers can and can’t handle, but you’re an adult, and if ultimately you decide you’re prepared to deal with confusion and initial resistance from them, then you don’t need her permission to tell them about your new relationship or to start bringing your girlfriend to family events. This isn’t a Victorian novel and the shock isn’t going to kill them—they’ll just, you know, experience a little shock. Let your mother know that you’ve appreciated her perspective but you’ve decided to bring your girlfriend to the next family get-together and will be telling your grandmothers in advance. Then find a time to tell each of them separately that you’re seeing someone new, offer them a bit of a primer, and give them some time to adjust.
If your mom’s response is “Oh, no! You can’t do that! They’re too old and judgmental,” then your response can be, “I disagree.” It’s probably true that they’ll be surprised or even say something thoughtless, but that’s not the end of the world, and I’m sure you’ll be able to strike a balance between making allowances for their age and circumstances and asking that they be, at the least, distantly polite to your girlfriend at the next reunion.
Q. Recovering evidence of an affair: Two weeks ago, the husband of a former co-worker called me and said my husband and his wife were sexting. Initially I defended my husband, but he sent me some of the exchanges that he managed to screenshot. I confronted my husband. He initially denied it, but after I told him I had some evidence, he admitted guilt.
The problem is that my husband deleted all of the messages. It is killing me not to know what was in the messages and more importantly when the messaging happened (was I in the same room at the time)? I have found recovery software that may be able to recover some of the messages. My husband has agreed to let me try to recover the messages but has asked me not to.
I do not feel he has been completely truthful about the extent of the emotional affair. He will not give a lot of specifics and claims he doesn’t remember a lot, which I find hard to believe, as it only happened a short time ago. We saw a marriage counselor last week, but she won’t tell me what to do and only told me I need to decide. I don’t know if I can move on from this without knowing what he said and when he said it. Should I try to recover the messages? I am a complete mess over this.
A: It makes a lot of sense that you would feel like a complete mess right now! Give yourself permission to feel a little messy. It’s only been two weeks, and you still don’t know the full extent of what your husband has done or said. I don’t know what you’ve already seen through those screenshots or what you’re hoping to get out of seeing every gory detail; if he did text her while you were in the same room, would you then feel like you had sufficient justification to leave? To enact a certain type of punishment? To allow yourself to be angry over what you’ve been calling an “emotional” affair but does not, I think, actually require any modifiers? Whether or not the two of them had sex in-person (and they may very well have), I don’t think that’s the only metric you can use to assess whether or not he’s been unfaithful to you.
Q. Subordinate crush: I have a crush, but there are problems: I am her supervisor; I am gay, she is (seemingly) not; and I am in a long-term-relationship, while she is single. We work in a close-knit office of 20 people, and we all genuinely enjoy one another’s company. A group of us go out for happy hour once every week or so, and this past week she laughed at my not-funny jokes, exaggeratedly put her head on my shoulder a few times, and brushed against my arm or leg repeatedly.
My gut says these moments have been intentional rather than natural reactions. I am pretty good at reading people, and I think she is flirting with me. The flirtation here and at other moments in the office makes me feel desired in a way I haven’t felt in years. I think her flirtation may be a reaction to her feeling desired by me, because despite my best efforts to remain professional, I can admit that I have casually flirted and occasionally smiled too long.
Regardless, I go back to the previous problems: supervisor, sexuality, and relationship status. I recognize that nothing good can come from this situation, whether it’s real or in my imagination. So, I want to and need to get over it. In my gut, I know better and don’t want anything to come from this crush, but I feel like a teenager again! How do I maintain my job and get over this crush?
A: It’s great that you all enjoy one another’s company! Generally speaking, I’m of the opinion that bosses shouldn’t accompany workers on after-work happy hours, so this might be an excellent opportunity for you to scale back on that. That doesn’t mean you have to become chilly and start slamming your door in your employees’ faces whenever they try to have a friendly chat with you, but I’d advise you to suddenly become a little busier than usual after work. Maybe spend a little time with your partner—take her out for a drink and put your head on her shoulder. If you haven’t felt desired in years, that’s significant and worth paying attention to, but only insofar as you and your girlfriend can talk about what you might like to change about your current relationship. Maybe it will even help you realize that it’s time to end your relationship! But if that does happen, my advice would be to look for other already-out gay and bi women to date who don’t work for you.
That doesn’t mean your slight giddiness over your co-worker is going to disappear overnight. If you occasionally feel bowled over by her smile, don’t try to punish yourself or play it up as a sign that you two are destined for a forbidden office romance. Just acknowledge that the attention feels nice, let the moment pass, and get back to work. But if she tries to initiate future games of plausibly deniable footsie, take the opportunity to move your chair away.
Q. Bad time for the radicalization conversation: For the last nine months or so, my younger cousin has been using social media as an outlet for making increasingly brazen dog whistle posts about white nationalism. Horrifyingly, his latest escalation was a post using language borrowed from the New Zealand mosque shooter’s manifesto.
Prudie, I follow these issues closely, and it’s possible I’m the only member of the family who recognizes this cousin’s rhetoric for what it really is. I also realize that families, friends, and neighbors often must intervene when young men show signs of radicalization. The problem? This is all coming to a head as our grandfather, the family patriarch, is likely at the end of his life. The whole family is pulling together to make his last days comfortable ones, and I don’t know if now would be a rotten time to potentially create a huge rift by talking to my cousin, and whether it would even do any good. We’re not close and there’s already tension between me and his MAGA-aligned family anyway.
So what should be my approach? Talk to him right now, before his awful worldview further solidifies? Wait to talk to him until after things with our grandfather are settled? Bring my concerns to another relative that he has a better relationship with? Or should I just ignore him and hope he wakes up to the hatefulness of his views?
A: I have never heard of a white nationalist who abandoned their views because the people in their life ignored their beliefs. Share your concerns with your other family members. Clue them in to the dog whistles they might not be familiar with, and speak to your cousin either with any relatives who might lend you support, or by yourself if need be. You can also set aside some time to visit your grandfather and talk to him about other things, but I don’t see any reason why your grandfather’s illness should delay a conversation with your cousin.
Q. Re: Coming out to grandmas: Could we get past the ageist assumptions and comments about how people of a certain age think? You may find that the grandmas are far from surprised, and they may be far more supportive than much younger people. They are 92, yes, but that doesn’t automatically make them stupid, unobservant, or narrow-minded.
A: I agree that in general saying “any 92-year-old is bound to be homophobic and transphobic” makes unfair assumptions about their age; however, in this particular instance, I think both the letter writer and her mother know the 92-year-olds in question, and probably have a fairly accurate read on their opinions on gay and trans people.
Q. Therapist at work and home: My live-in partner and I have been going through a rough patch recently. I recently found out that he kissed someone else a few months ago and lied to me repeatedly about it. We are trying to patch things up and have identified his drinking and drug use as a major source of some of our issues in our relationship and his problems individually.
I’ve done everything I can to try to support him while also trying to heal myself from his betrayal, including going to the first AA meeting with him as a supporter and helping him get connected with a therapist through my work insurance. He went to the therapist once and hasn’t gone back to AA since I went with him. He has been drinking much less, but last weekend when we got into an argument, he slipped up.
I know I can’t be his only source of support while trying to make these changes; I work as a therapist for adolescents with suicidality, and when I come home, I feel completely burnt out. I’m hesitant to give him an ultimatum that if he doesn’t go to AA and therapy then we will have to end our relationship because I’m not really comfortable with ultimatums, but I feel way too much pressure to help him while I’m also in a lot of pain from his indiscretion with this other woman.
I love my partner a lot and I don’t want to abandon him while he’s trying to work on things, but everything is feeling like too much for me. Do I insist on AA and therapy for him in order to move forward in our relationship? Cut my losses, break up, and uproot the life I’ve created with him? Leave it up to him to figure out his drinking and drug use? We just started to see a couples therapist upon my insistence and he has been willing to engage in that, but the therapist took us on with limited availability and there have been weeks between appointments, so we haven’t been able to gain much momentum. The therapist was coordinated through my work insurance in which I have limited options, so switching isn’t really possible, and I don’t have the funds to pay someone else out of pocket.
A: I think the important thing here is to identify what you need in a relationship in order to feel like it’s worth your time and energy to try to work through this “rough patch.” You say you’ve done “everything [you] can to try to support him” and heal yourself. You also say that he’s been to one AA meeting, one therapy session, and don’t mention anything else that he’s doing either to address his drinking or to repair the pain he’s caused you and the damage he’s done to your relationship. Is he doing anything else? Is he spending a lot of his spare time cultivating honesty, identifying damaging patterns he’s willing to change, developing better habits, and prioritizing you? What does his average day look like, outside of work and sleep?
Why aren’t you comfortable with ultimatums? Obviously they’re not meant to be handed out frivolously, but what’s wrong with saying, “I need a certain bare minimum of honesty and effort from my partner in order to stay invested in our relationship”? If he doesn’t think AA is a helpful tool for dealing with his drinking—a completely legitimate concern!—what alternatives has he sought out? Or did he just stop at “I don’t really like AA” and now has a sort of vague plan to just drink less on his own? My suspicion is that it’s the latter, which is part of why I think you need the ultimatum here. Ultimatums aren’t necessarily harsh, cruel, or dismissive! Saying, “You’ve hurt me, and while I love you, I need to know that you’re taking responsibility for making some changes and that you have a plan for building a future that looks different from our present. If you don’t have any sense of what you want to change, then I think that’s sufficient reason for me to assume you won’t change. I want to be in a healthy relationship together, but rather than try to change you against your will, I’m prepared to leave if I don’t think you’re ready for that challenge.”
Q. Office breakup: I was seriously dating a co-worker and we were talking about moving in together when he started pulling away emotionally; all our conversations ended up as small talk and staring at the TV. One Saturday, he texted me, “We need to talk.” Before I left, I gathered all his things out of my apartment and put them in a duffel bag. We met at a coffee bar. He told me he wanted to break up and I told him OK, put the bag on the table, gave him his key, and asked for mine back. He seemed bewildered but gave mine back.
I could see the writing on the wall and wanted to make this as painless as possible. Only now, my ex is spreading rumors about my “coldness” and even suggesting I might have cheated on him! We are in different departments, but it is a small company and the rumor mill is in full swing. I am confused and pissed off—he dumped me! I don’t understand this, and I don’t know what to do about it.
A: I think your best move here is to stay focused at work and don’t engage in the rumor mill. My guess is that he wanted to end your relationship, but he also wanted you to be devastated at the prospect of losing him, and your display of self-sufficiency and practicality wounded his ego. How embarrassing for him! But if the rumor mill is starting to affect your work—if, for example, you find other co-workers reluctant to work with you or suddenly avoidant where they’d previously been helpful and responsive—I think it’s worth going back to him and asking him to knock it off, that you’ve done him the favor of not discussing your former relationship at work, and that you’d appreciate if he could do the same.
Q. Re: Therapist at work and home: Alcoholics Anonymous is not the only way to treat alcohol abuse disorder, and in fact works for fewer than half of people who want to drink less. There are also medications, like naltrexone, which can reduce cravings and alcohol intake in most people. The therapist’s partner might do better with another solution.
A: I totally agree that AA is not the only option! But it doesn’t sound like the letter writer’s problem is “My partner is being shunted into AA despite attempting to access other means of achieving sobriety.” It sounds like the letter writer’s problem is “My partner barely tried AA for an hour, abandoned it, and has not tried anything else.” Obviously most people don’t get sober overnight or suddenly become wildly gung-ho about abstinence without a lot of support from a variety of sources, so that’s kind of to be expected. But the letter writer’s partner is perfectly capable of speaking to his doctor or therapist about this, or seeking out therapeutic alternatives to AA, without her looking them up for him, and I think it’s fair for her to say that unless he takes the lead in pursuing sobriety, she won’t stay in this relationship.
From Direct Report
Why do hiring managers play such coy games around salary? I was contacted out the blue by a recruiter on LinkedIn about a job opening they hoped I’d interview for. I responded by asking for more information, including the salary range. The recruiter gave me the typical line about salary depending on experience and then turned it on around on me and asked how much I was looking for. I’m not even job seeking right now! Giving me the run-around on salary, after they approached me, is aggravating. I’m sure they have a range in mind. Why not just tell me what it is so we each know if we’d be wasting our time or not?