Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Brother’s new leaf: My brother has turned his life around, gotten sober, gotten a job and a new girlfriend. I am glad about that, but I still don’t want him in my life. When I was 17, he broke in while I was babysitting our younger siblings. They were upstairs asleep. My brother started trashing the kitchen looking for money. I went up to stop him, and he slammed me into the wall and put his arm over my throat. I almost blacked out. My brother got scared off when he heard our neighbor driving into the garage next door. When I could, I called my parents. They came home but didn’t call the cops.
Now I am the one getting ostracized by the family. I don’t want to be in the same house as my brother. He has never apologized to me, and to this day I freak out if tall guys get too close to me without me knowing. Everyone knows what he did, but I am the problem for not getting over it. My younger siblings all talk about what a great guy he is, while my parents lay on the guilt. If I ask about whether my brother will be at a family event, I get asked, “This again?” or “Why are you like this?” I feel like I have done something wrong when I know I haven’t.
A. I’m so sorry that your family has made it clear that your job is to get over this violent assault immediately and casually, and that they’ve gone so far as to claim there’s something wrong with you for experiencing lingering aftereffects from it. The fact that your brother is now sober is a good thing, but the matter of his employment or finding a girlfriend has absolutely nothing to do with you. “He has a job now” is not a meaningful response to “He choked me and slammed me into a wall.”
The answers you need to be prepared to give your family are “Yes, this again” and “I take this really seriously because he hurt and terrorized me and he’s never apologized. Even if he did, that wouldn’t take away the pain and the terror of that night, or the fact that no one stood up for me or helped me deal with the trauma as a hurt teenager. I’m not trying to punish him by acknowledging what he did to me, and the limits I’m trying to set are reasonable and sane.” I hope you can see a therapist and find a support group for family members of addicts/alcoholics so you can speak to people who’ve had similar experiences and will grant you space to talk about what happened to you. Just because he’s not using now doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to talk about how his actions affected other people.
If you don’t want to be around him (especially since he’s never attempted to make amends for the way he harmed you), then that’s a perfectly sound and sane decision. Anyone who tries to make you feel guilty for that choice is wrong to do so. It may, unfortunately, mean that for at least the time being, you don’t spend time with your other siblings or parents either, but you may experience some relief in getting distance from them, too.
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Q. Why can’t people just get golden retrievers? I’m a mid-30s gay man in a committed relationship. Both of us don’t want children and instead choose to spend our time and money on fun adventures, both small and large. We joke a lot about children “ruining lives,” but over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that I truly see children in that way.
Now that we’re at an age in which our friends are procreating at what seems to me like a ridiculous rate, I find myself struggling to find the joy in any new pregnancy announcement. When we get news, I view that as the start of a friendship that will soon go into decline. I know we won’t see them as much, their priorities will change, and on the occasions we do see each other, conversations will be centered around their precious angels. I dread the conversations where parents complain about being tired and all the challenges of being a parent.
For all my friends at least, it’s a voluntary condition and I can’t empathize. It’s almost like a feeling of slight depression when I hear another friend gets pregnant. The rational side of my brain is telling me to be happy for people moving on to this next phase of life, but inside I don’t feel that way. I know I will miss my friends, and things will never be the same between us.
I don’t like feeling this way and wish I could truly be happy to hear this news, but unfortunately, all I see are disappearing or changing friendships. There’s probably no easy fix here, and I know procreation is a natural part of most people’s life journeys, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
A. For starters, I’m really glad to hear that you and your partner are on the same page about kids. That must be such a relief! And I’m glad, too, that you’re aware that these aren’t feelings you can share with your friends who do have kids, and you haven’t been slighting or cruel towards them.
I think there are a few things that will help. First and foremost, I think you should be on the lookout for friends who have also consciously decided never to have kids so that you have more than just your partner in your life who shares that decision and value. That doesn’t mean you should replace your entire social circle overnight, but it’ll be great to know there are at least a few people you can reliably call up and plan a no-kids outing with and maybe even vent to about the challenges of not having children in a world where most people do.
As for the feelings of depression and loss when a friend of yours has a child—those feelings make sense to me, and I think you should set aside time to nurture them! Maybe that means seeing a therapist a few times a year or having a journal where you write out all the things you’ll miss the most or the ways in which you feel cheated. You don’t have to justify those feelings in these venting sessions, or couch them in “Of course I know my friends will experience a lot of joy out of raising their kids” or anything like that—these moments are for you to share confidentially the ways in which you feel abandoned or deprioritized or like you’re going to have to spend a lot of time feigning interest in order to keep from offending your friends and acquaintances. When you’ve set aside time and space for that, you may find you have a bit more patience with your friends who have kids. That doesn’t mean you need to force yourself to become a jolly uncle to a dozen different toddlers when that’s not what’s in your heart! But it’s a real loss that you’re experiencing, and not one you can straightforwardly discuss with most of your friends (aside from the occasional “I really miss you! I know kids take up a lot of time and energy, but if you ever want to catch up over a drink or two and have a little just-adults time, please give me a call”).
Q. Weed woes: One of my close friends was assaulted many years ago. Recently, they have started to feel triggered by certain things connected with that experience. One of the things is people smoking marijuana, which is very common in our social circle, and which they themselves used to do but don’t anymore. I know they have been in therapy and are trying to process and heal, and maybe the increase in triggers and reactions to triggers is because they’re revisiting memories.
There have been awkward situations lately where other friends feel they left abruptly, or don’t understand why they are upset. I would never tell their history without permission. They don’t feel comfortable talking about it or asking people not to smoke when it is so common in our age group and social circle (we live in a state where it’s legal), but often they end up leaving gatherings feeling upset and isolated. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I’ve thought about asking people not to smoke as if I was the one bothered by it, but I don’t think people would believe me, and I don’t think lying is a good solution in the long run. How can I help?
A. In the short term, if your friend is OK with people occasionally wondering why they left the room, I don’t think you need to worry about managing other people’s surprise. It’s not a huge, horrifying reaction, and you can just let that discomfort fade away naturally. You might also ask your friend if they want to get together one-on-one more often for activities that don’t involve smoking, and ultimately I think you should be prepared for them to come around slightly less often to events that do.
Q. Re: Brother’s new leaf: Oh, I feel for you! I was in a similar situation. I was finally able to explain to my family the physical pain and fear that I experienced, and I was able to make them understand that their silence and denial had continued to make me feel unsafe and that my well-being was not a priority, which meant I had to cut them off and not give them any input into my safety and well-being. It took a while to get the message across, but after time it did, and I was able to repair my relationship with some of my family. Your family should expect honesty from your brother; his recovery has a weak leg if he’s in denial of his treatment of you.
A. I’m so sorry that you went through something similar, although I’m really glad that your family eventually came to understand how badly they were hurting you. My fear is that the letter writer’s relatives will continue to make them feel responsible for “forgiving” their brother, since his recovery is apparently dependent on no one else ever mentioning his past. But it may be that having a serious conversation about just how traumatic this night was and how powerful the aftereffects have been on the letter writer’s sense of safety and peace of mind will, at least, enable them to stop pushing. We can only hope!
Q. Boundaries: Because of a few different nonfatal chronic health issues, my husband withdrew from having sex about four years ago. He wouldn’t discuss it—any attempt on my part to bring it up resulted in tears about how bad he felt—and he’s not at all interested in maybe doing anything just for me either. I tested the waters (after four years, I wasn’t sure what I could still do, either!), found a few nice people online, and asked for an open relationship, which he agreed to.
He hasn’t wanted to discuss it much, which I’ve respected, but there’s lots of disapproval when I go out and he’s said he wished I had just snuck around and not told him. Now he’s signaling indirectly (hello, Facebook!) that he wants to rescind his “permission” for me to see other people. I’m not sure he gets to give me permission, exactly. I guess when I took my wedding vows, I was happy to promise to only have sex with him for the rest of my life, but I didn’t give enough thought to being tied to someone who doesn’t want me and doesn’t want me to have anyone else either. What are my obligations here?
A. To talk with your husband, mostly. I don’t think you want to be in a marriage where your husband tells Facebook he doesn’t want you to sleep with other people, you do it anyway, and the two of you never talk about it. It’s OK if he cries! I think it’s important not to let his tears stop you from talking about something as significant as your sex life.
You sound like you’re on the verge of contemplating divorce over this. That’s understandable, but I think before you take that step, you need to have a few difficult come-to-Jesus conversations. If he starts to cry, offer him a tissue and let him cry; then resume the discussion. “We need to discuss our sex life together because I’ve been unhappy and frustrated for a long time, and I don’t want us to hash it out with other people through social media. If you’re not OK with my having sex with other people, then I want to revisit what kind of sex life we’re able to develop together. I cannot see myself in a completely sexless marriage, so let’s talk about what alternatives to divorce are available here.”
Q. Let’s (not) eat cake: I am a young woman working from home and living with my boyfriend in a condo flat with several neighbors. One of my neighbors, L, is a middle-aged woman who spends her time mostly at home. She is also the current president of the homeowners association, and her condo is located at the building’s entrance. When we first met, L would come out to talk as I made small talk with our building’s doorman. As time went on, L became more and more interested in our lives. Sometimes it was hard to even walk inside the building without being set upon and having to politely listen to her troubles for over an hour at a time. L never seemed to pick up on hints that it was time for the conversation to end. After some of these monologues, my boyfriend and I became more evasive and tried to keep conversation to a minimum.
Recently, L fell upon harder times with her health and began to sell homemade cakes as a way to ease the burden. At first, my boyfriend and I were happy to buy a few slices to support her. Now, L brings cake to sell to her neighbors at least twice a week. She expects us to buy every time, to the point of texting me multiple times in one day if I’ll be buying any. She will sometimes ring my doorbell multiple times if I don’t answer right away, which is disruptive to my work. Prudie, the cakes are delicious, but neither my waistline nor my wallet can take buying from her this often. How can I politely take a break from the cake and distance myself from L? Because she’s the HOA president and our neighbor, cutting off all contact isn’t an option.
A. “I’m afraid we’re not able to buy any more cake. Thanks for checking in!” Any attempts to bring up cake-related topics of conversation should be met with either silence (if over text) or “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I’ve got to go, have a nice day!” if it’s in person.
Q. Re: Why can’t we all get golden retrievers? I’m a parent of a teenager who is about to go to college (provided that our payment to get him on the fencing team isn’t discovered, ha ha). Most of our friends both before our son was born and since have been single or childless. We try to avoid talking about him or our fatigue and generally wait to be asked specifically about him and specific things he is doing before talking about them. It is a relief not to be exchanging boring kid talk with other adults, almost none of whom we knew before our son was born. Our son has fit in well with most of them, and it’s been good for all of us to have childless and single friends in our lives.
Please DO NOT assume that your friends will turn into babbling idiots for the next 18 years. The first couple of years are physically exhausting, and the logistics are complicated; you do need to get up earlier with a kid and make them run around for a few hours. But it doesn’t mean that conversations are all about diapers and preschool. There are parents who can maintain the adultness even in the face of the demands of a small child.
A. I hope that the letter writer does have friends like that! It’s also possible, I think, to be at a level of frustration or isolation on this issue (especially if he hasn’t let himself acknowledge it openly and has let it build up) where even pretty bog-standard, noneffusive references to kids feel like too much, and finding an outlet and some childless or child-free friends will be helpful too. My guess is that even really chill, adult-oriented parents are hard for him to deal with right now, because the chillest parent in the world still wants to talk about their kid or can’t get together for a late dinner. I hope that changes in the future, though, and it’s helpful to remember that the mid-30s are sort of prime “babies and toddlers” age, so a lot of these friends may reappear in a few years with a little more free time.
Q. What to say to a victim of a long-ago sexual assault? Several decades ago, when we were in college, a friend of mine was sexually assaulted by a mutual acquaintance. This was back in the days before terms like “date rape” were in common use and when men were almost never held accountable for committing such crimes. While she and I never discussed it, the assault was common knowledge within our social circle.
I haven’t seen this friend or even spoken to her directly in many years, but we are friends on Facebook, so we’re generally connected regarding what’s happening in each other’s lives. Recently the man who assaulted her was mentioned in a national news story on an unrelated matter. I know that my friend is aware of this because she posted an oblique comment when the topic came up in a Facebook group; beyond that comment, I have no idea how she’s processing it. It would be easy for me to say nothing, but if there’s anything I could say or do to support her, I would like to. The question is, what?
A. Since she’s made reference to it herself and you two are in some contact, I don’t think it would be inappropriate to offer her support. Send her a private message; don’t say anything that other friends of hers might be able to see or comment on. Something along the lines of “I saw your comment about X, and I wanted to say that I’m so sorry and that you have all my support. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but I’m grateful that we’ve been able to reconnect in the last few years and I hope you’re doing well” is clear without going into unnecessary detail and lets her take the lead on how the conversation might proceed.
Q. Re: Brother’s new leaf: If the family challenges her about why she avoids her brother, I would respond with something like “I’m sure you’re not suggesting that being attacked and choked is a minor inconvenience that can simply be forgotten. Now that you know how serious this is, I’m sure you can be respectful of my need for some distance.”
A. Fabulous script, thank you!
Q. Re: Boundaries: Maybe this is the husband’s passive-aggressive way of asking for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy?
A. If so, it’s a master class in passive-aggressiveness (and in really ineffective communication strategies)!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
“My wife and I have failed to conceive for years. After the emotional roller coaster we’ve been through, we finally settled on having my (gay) brother be a sperm donor. This is something both of our families support and we are very excited about going through with. However, as the appointment for fertilization nears, my wife and brother have gone from close to almost inseparable, talking about ‘their’ future child. I feel shut out of my own marriage. This baby is all we’ve ever wanted, and now I want to tell her that we shouldn’t. I’m jealous and anxious and I don’t know what to do.”
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