Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Lesbian or not, this is weird: When I started college last year, I decided to share a house with my best friend and two other girls. One of the other girls left and we had to scramble to get someone new. The new roommate is a grad student, a few years older than us, and had just broken up with her “partner” and thus needed somewhere new on short notice. I’m not sure we’d have been her pick for an ideal place or roommates, but she’s nice if a bit reserved.
My best friend and our other roommate are weirdly obsessed with the idea that the new roommate is a lesbian. I have no idea whether she is, and don’t care, but they’re doing all these weird Parent Trap by way of Catfish stunts to try and prove that she’s into girls. So far, they’ve gone on dating sites to see if she was on there, stalked her Facebook and Twitter, made fake accounts, and tried to set her up on a date with a friend who has a gender-neutral name.
I am massively uncomfortable with this whole thing. I’ve told them to quit it and that it’s invasive, but they just said I was a spoilsport. My friend suggested that I should come on to the roommate to see what happens so they’d know one way or another, but I have a boyfriend, she is way out of my league, and it would be impossibly horrible no matter how she reacted! Like I said, I feel this is solidly inappropriate. I’m just not sure how I should deal with it. Should I tell our new roommate? I have tried to think what I’d want in this situation, but I go back and forth on whether I’d want to know.
Some other relevant info: 1) As far as I know, both of my roommates are straight, but the new roommate is very cool, fashionable, and a lot more together than we are, so it could be a sort of girl-crush, aspirational thing? 2) I do have a BIG crush on the new roommate. Because of the boyfriend and roommate stuff, I don’t mean for this to go anywhere, but I know it makes me want to avoid this quite weird conversation with her.
A: Oh my God, please tell her. She has a right to know that the women she lives with and presumably feels safe around have made a sport out of her sexual orientation and are actively trying to catfish her. Right now, she trusts them and you have excellent reasons to know that she shouldn’t.
As for your points at the end, when it comes to No. 1, it really doesn’t matter whether your roommates’ inappropriate behavior is driven by titillation, attraction, repulsion, judgment, or some combination of all of them. Mistreating someone and trying to justify it with attraction is wrong when it’s a little boy shoving a little girl on the playground (“It’s because he likes you!”) and it’s wrong when straight people do it to gay (or perceived-as-gay) people. Please don’t try to justify cruelty with it. With No. 2, don’t let your own discomfort be the deciding factor here. Set your own crush on the girl aside and let her know what your roommates have been doing, that you have tried to get them to stop and they’ve refused, and that she can’t trust them.
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Q. Damned if you do …: Recently at a social function, my co-worker met my friend, who is transgender. I was not around to see this happen, but all parties involved confirmed that my co-worker said very upsetting things and took pride in his ignorance. The next day at work, my co-worker asked me to explain what he did wrong. I said I didn’t want to talk about it. (He gets off on negative attention.) However, he would not let the issue go, so I gave in and tried to explain LGBT issues and basic human empathy. The conversation wound up being about how not to be a jackass in general, including, but not limited to, LGBT issues. Spoiler alert: He was still a jackass by the end of our hourlong talk.
A day after that, my friend asked me if there had been any updates to the drama. I told him that I initially tried to shut down any attempts at futile conversation with the co-worker but that he insisted. I gave my friend a brief rundown of what I said. My friend thanked me and said that he really appreciated what I did. Then, a week later, my friend told me that he didn’t like being used as a straight/cis person teaching tool, and that he sometimes feels like I parade him around as his token trans friend. I said I’m sorry and that I’ll try to be more aware, but really I was thinking, what the hell? I never talk about trans issues unless he or my other friends in the community bring them up, and even then, I just listen. I educate myself by reading, not demanding that people in my life explain things to me. I actively resisted using the situation as a “teaching tool” and was forced into doing so by a straight male co-worker. It kind of pissed me off. I didn’t boast about what a great ally I was or ask for brownie points. Am I an asshole for being kind of irked that my friend is so fickle? What am I supposed to do—speak for underrepresented groups or not?
A: It’s never fun to hear from a friend that they’ve sometimes felt tokenized or instrumentalized. But I think you shut down that conversation too soon by rushing into “Sorry, I’ll try harder” and then swallowing your confusion. There’s an opportunity here to revisit the subject: “I want to talk a little more about this, because it came as a bit of a surprise to me and I want to know more about what I’ve done or said that’s made you feel like I was using you. I really don’t want to make you feel that way, and I’m glad that you said something to me about it.”
If I had to guess, it might have something to do with the social function itself—I don’t know if you brought your friend to an event with mostly co-workers or what, but he might have felt like he’d been sent in unprepared to talk to a surprise transphobe. You say you know that your co-worker gets off on negative attention, so you might have been able to anticipate that he’d be an asshole to your trans friend. I could be wrong—that may not be what your friend is thinking at all—but it’s worth carefully and nondefensively reviewing so you can figure out different approaches to take in the future.
I really do think it’s great that you listen, that you don’t go out of your way to ask trans people to praise you, and so on. But I don’t think you need to feel like your “trans ally” status is being threatened here, or to react defensively as a result. Your friend took a risk in telling you that he sometimes feels like a teaching tool; he wasn’t telling you that you were a bad person or that you don’t really care about him. I don’t think you should expect that you’re going to be able to be perfectly supportive even with the best of intentions, and it’s genuinely OK that what feels like “doing your best” to you sometimes doesn’t work for your trans friend. Take a little time to feel irritated, then when you’ve had a chance to let some of the immediate intensity of the situation settle down, go back to your friend and talk about it again with an open mind.
Q. Immune-compromised kid vs. anti-vaccination family: My oldest child (almost 12) was diagnosed two years ago with a severe case of an autoimmune disease. We have spent countless hours at the hospital, in surgeries, trying very scary drugs, put in studies, waiting, waiting, waiting. Our ultimate goal is remission, and we’re not any closer now than we were at the beginning. So here we are two years in, and we are still desperately trying to avoid some risky surgery. We made the difficult decision to try a very intense medicinal regimen with some potentially serious side effects. One of the most common is a considerably suppressed immune system. My family has been great, and made sure to update all their vaccinations. My husband’s family less so. On paper, they love their giant family and their bazillion grandkids. But in reality, we found out over the holidays that my husband’s oldest brother has not (ever) vaccinated his only child—and he and his parents decided we didn’t need to know.
I’m livid. I want to shake all of them and then write them off forever. Instead, I wrote a very polite text to the brother that said our child cannot be around unvaccinated children and he needs to let us know before we see them. No response. Now Easter is coming up, and I’m sure we’re going to get a call the night before to ask when we’ll be there. I’m sure we won’t hear from anyone before then. Is it appropriate to email all the siblings that they’ll never see us all together again, and it’s their idiot brother’s fault? Politely, of course. Or do we just wait to see if any of them bother to ask us where we are?
A. I think now is a great opportunity for your husband to step in and take over dealing with his side of the family, since it’s fallen to you so far. He can let everyone know that for your child’s health and safety, you cannot spend time with anyone who isn’t up-to-date on their vaccinations, and that you look forward to hearing from them when they’ve all gotten their shots. He should also step in and handle any passive-aggressive blowback you may encounter, too, including last-minute “When are you coming over for Easter?” calls. (To which the answer is: “As you’ll recall from our last conversation, as soon as your kids have received their vaccinations.”)
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Q. Competing with a ghost: My partner escaped an abusive childhood by running straight into a marriage with their high school sweetheart, who they divorced only after a few years. Then we met and got married 10 years later. My partner was the one who left that first marriage, has always felt they handled it badly, and still had some feelings for the ex. Last year, the ex reached out to find closure due to illness. They made plans to meet, but the ex passed away before it happened. I provided a shoulder to cry on, listened to how awful they felt about what they’d done when they were young and stupid, and supported them as best as I could.
But more than half a year later, we’re still stagnating in grief. I come home from work to sadness and the same depressing songs for the 1,000th time. I’m trying to remain supportive, but hearing daily about the great love story of my partner’s life that is apparently not me hurts. A few times I’ve broken down and said something, and I always get reassured of their love, but the next day I come home to the same. How do I compete with a ghost, or do I just resign myself to hiding it all away and hoping something will improve eventually?
A. Do not resign yourself to hiding it all away and hoping things will eventually get better! That is, 999 times out of 1,000, not going to be my advice to anyone. You’re not Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and suffering in silence is for the birds! Right now you seem to feel that because your partner is sad, you’re not allowed to have feelings or draw boundaries (the thinking seems to be: Your partner’s parents were abusive and their ex died, so the only response you’ll allow yourself to have is total self-abnegation). But six months of providing ’round-the-clock support as your partner goes into full mourning for a long-ago ex is way too much!
You are well within your rights to say that your partner needs to see a therapist to deal with this grief. That doesn’t mean you’re dismissing your partner’s abusive childhood or trying to censor their feelings, just that your partner also has an obligation to support and listen to you. This relationship cannot be an emotional one-way street. The problem is not that you’ve broken down and said something; the problem is that you’ve let your partner reassure you “Don’t worry, I still love you but won’t change any of my behavior.” They need to speak to someone else about this, and they definitely need to find a way to grieve that doesn’t involve telling you that someone else was the love of their life.
Q. Addictions, depression, and trust: I’ve been in a relationship with my partner for nearly five years, and we were friends for more than five years before that. They are a huge part of my life and for the longest time, I expected (or hoped) to spend my life with them. But over the past year, things got out of control. I moved for a job, so we were long-distance. She fell into a deep depression for a variety of reasons, began using alcohol as an escape, and ultimately crashed her car and got a DUI. Couple this with some pretty intense lies over the course of her substance abuse, and our relationship clearly suffered. She entered into an inpatient treatment program for a few weeks after crashing her car. When she got out, we tried for a few weeks to maintain some semblance of normalcy, but it eventually just became too much, and we took a little bit of space and a break to focus on ourselves.
At first, I took this really hard! But as time has gone on, it has both allowed me to heal a bit from all of this (she went missing a few times before the DUI, I had to go search for her, et cetera), but also now question how I feel about this relationship. In many ways, I know that none of what she did was to me on purpose (I’m in therapy myself). But that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect me and the relationship. And now, I have some unresolved anger and trust issues from all of this. It is a weird feeling; I’ve never felt these emotions about her.
We are supposed to see each other in a week, and I am unsure on how to approach it. In some ways, I don’t want to press the issue the first time we see each other. By all accounts, I’m happy she’s (seemingly) doing better and I don’t want the stress of this relationship and conversation impeding that. At the same time, I also feel like I need to look out for myself here. I’m hurt and angry by the betrayal of trust (I won’t get into specifics) and I want to address those issues. What should I do here? I’m trying to balance competing interests—her recovery with my feelings of stability, trust, et cetera. How long do I wait to bring these things up? Is the relationship just too damaged at this point? Am I even justified in these feelings?
A. It’s important to separate out “wanting her to keep getting the help she needs to stay sober and be well” from “continuing to be in a romantic long-distance relationship with her.” You sound very clear on the former and not at all sure on the latter. Saying something like “I don’t want the stress of this relationship impeding that” puts responsibility for her continued sobriety and well-being on your continuing to date her, which is way too much responsibility for any one person to have. It also posits your relationship as something you owe her as a result of her drinking problem, which is definitely not how relationships work.
So as to whether you’re “justified” in feeling hurt about the fact that your girlfriend’s drinking got out of control and led her to disappear/crash a car/betray your trust: Yes! Obviously yes! I think this state-of-the-union conversation is an excellent time to bring things up. That’s not to say you need to hash everything out in that exact moment, but you absolutely should bring up how this has been affecting you. I don’t know if the relationship is too damaged or not at this point; you’ll have to spend some time before this conversation asking yourself what she could do to regain your trust, whether you can see your way toward eventually forgiving her, and what your relationship might look like in the future (not to mention how you will prioritize your own safety and well-being if her sobriety doesn’t end up being permanent). If you decide that you want her to be well but just don’t want to keep dating her, that’s a perfectly sensible conclusion to draw, and you’re allowed to end your relationship over it.
Q. Friend turned frenemy: I have two very close friends, “Jen” and “Chelsea,” who have not been getting along for a while. Several months ago, the feuding led to a major blowup between them, for which I was present. Jen tends to use me as a sounding board, and I try to offer her my support by listening and giving advice. After her fight with Chelsea, Jen vented her frustration to me numerous times, and each time I encouraged her to try to reach out to Chelsea to talk things out.
Several weeks ago, we were planning a get-together for the three of us, our first since the big blowup. Privately, Jen asked me to stand up for her in the event that she and Chelsea had another argument. I told her that I didn’t think I should get between them, and lamented that I had gotten involved in the first place by talking to her about the situation. Jen became very upset with me and told me that my decision to be neutral delegitimized her feelings. I apologized for hurting her, but remained firm that I needed to stay out of their drama.
Jen stopped speaking to me. It’s been three weeks and I’m incredibly hurt by Jen’s silent treatment. We’re all in our late 20s, and this fight feels incredibly juvenile. Was I wrong to take the position I did? Jen is one of my closest friends, but she’s making me feel like a bad person, and I know I’m not. How can I move forward and try to save our friendship?
A. You can’t save your friendship with Jen against her will. Assuming that neither one of them did something you find genuinely objectionable (and assuming that you thought her request for you to “stand up for her” in the event of another fight was out of line—does Chelsea have a habit of steamrolling Jen?), I think you were right to encourage them to sort it out themselves rather than look for allies to take their side and draw lines in the sand. Jen made a request of you and you declined, and you have to allow her her own feelings about that. If you want to try again, I think you have grounds to say the following: “I really miss talking to you, and I hope we can get past this. It’s been sad for me to watch you and Chelsea fight, and I hope you two can solve your problems. But I also resent being asked to take sides in a situation where I don’t think any one person has been clearly in the wrong. You have a right to your own feelings, and I’m not saying that you need to just get over it, but I won’t take sides here. I hope you and I can stay friends regardless, because I care about you, but if what you need from me in order to stay friends is for me to choose you over Chelsea, I can’t do that.”
Q. What’s there to say? My 2-year-old child is on their second day care center. Their transition to the first day care was rough, but seemed within the realm of normal. One of the teachers my child started with, “Alexandra,” seemed stern, but competent. My child left her room after a few months and joined the toddler room. They slowly adjusted to the center and seemed to enjoy their time there. Months later, my child started screaming manically whenever they saw Alexandra. Although my child was then a year and a half, they were unable to speak very much at the time. Now, nine months since they left the center, my husband and I mentioned Alexandra’s name one day to see how they would react and were shocked: They started to cry and completely shut down, needed a comfort object, refused to finish dinner (out of character!), and asked to go to bed early. While they are somewhat more verbal now, we could get more information by asking leading questions and wait for a “yes” or “no,” which we also know can be unreliable. I wanted to bring this up to our pediatrician, but my husband pointed out that he would likely be a mandated reporter and required to report the school or teacher. I would of course do this in a heartbeat if I had any idea that abuse or wrongdoing happened, but my toddler has not actually told me anything and I would feel uncomfortable upending someone’s career over nonverbal cues.
A. I agree that in the absence of a verbal claim, you don’t have sufficient reason to go back to the first day care center. I really don’t know how common it is for little kids to develop an aversion to someone, but I think it’s perfectly safe to bring up with your pediatrician, because there’s just not enough here to flag a mandated report. I think it will help you feel more at ease to ask how common this is and how you can best comfort your child in the event they have an outsized response to someone again in the future. In the meantime, take comfort in the fact that your child seems currently happy at their current day care and (crucially, I think) never came home seemingly traumatized or harmed at their old one.
Q. Update: Aunt dying of friend’s illness: Thanks for answering my question. You reaffirmed my gut feeling not to go to my friend, and I really appreciated your encouragement to support my aunt. After I sent in my letter, my girlfriend told me that she’s been occasionally updating my friend on my aunt’s condition (at their request) for the past six months or so. My aunt and her spouse have decided to go on a “farewell tour” of some of the countries they’ve visited frequently (my aunt is a specialist in her field and travels often for work), so there’s not much for me to do apart from letting her know that I love her and I’m here for anything.
Thanks to the commenters who put this in perspective for me; I certainly wasn’t planning on trying to make my best friend my only support system, but it was helpful to have it reiterated how much of a bad idea it could have been. In the past, I’ve tried to be the person that they don’t have to give updates about their illness to, and I want to keep being that friend.
A. I’m so glad this was helpful, and that your aunt is going to get to do something she enjoys with the time she has left. And I hope you can keep getting the support you need from other friends and family members, because this is a lot to deal with at once, and you seem like a very considerate and compassionate person.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone!
Q. 32-year-old virgin: I’m a 32-year-old straight man and I’ve never been in a relationship with a woman. I can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve been on. I’ve had many female friends and am perfectly comfortable around women in that context, but as soon as it’s a “date” my anxiety takes over and ruins everything. Although a professional has never formally diagnosed me, I’m pretty sure I have avoidant personality disorder (I have all the symptoms listed on various psychology websites). I’m afraid of going to therapy or taking medication. I’m sure you would advise me to try either of those things. What bothers me is that even if I went to therapy and was able to manage my anxiety, I worry about reactions to my lack of romantic experience. Do I try to hide it for as long as possible or be totally up front about it? I feel like I’m past the point of no return, and it’s just too weird to date now.
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