Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Delicate workplace question: I am a manager of a small team at my workplace. My industry is heavily male-dominated, and my team has one other woman on it besides me. My team member “Claudia” is professional, friendly, and intelligent. I have no qualms about entrusting her with important, time-sensitive tasks, and do so with great success.
Claudia was always very large and has gained a substantial amount of weight in the past three to four years. At this point, I’m quite sure she’d be classified as morbidly obese. Aside from being concerned for her health, I know for a fact that her weight has held her career back. Directors above me are reluctant to place her in a more client-facing role, as they believe it would appear unprofessional. I truly want the best for her and would hate to see her impeded by something so easily fixable. Is there a way to address this? Should I even try?
A: Right now, Michigan is the only state (along with a handful of cities) that protects employees from weight-based discrimination, which is a shame, because it’s been well-documented that fat employees, especially women, often face serious discrimination for their size. The part that’s “easy to fix” is the part where people in your company discriminate against “professional, friendly, and intelligent” workers because they’ve made assumptions about them due to their size. They should stop it. For your part, promote Claudia’s case to your directors on the strength of her work history; my guess is that you’ve never interfered with another colleague’s personal life on the strength of your concern for their health, so you can safely dispense with that fiction.
You say you want the best for her, so let me present you with your two options: 1) You try to find a “delicate” way to tell an excellent employee that the reason she’s being kept back at work is because some of her superiors think her body is an unprofessional size, and that she can only be trusted with clients if she loses weight, or 2) advocate for people, especially women, in your company to be accorded raises based on the strength of their work and not their size. The second option is the best; please choose it.
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Q. Romeo and Juliet laws don’t apply: My 19-year-old son has a 16-year-old girlfriend. They met in high school as senior and freshman and continue to date long-distance now. My son announced last night that he plans to quit school, get an apartment, and have his girlfriend move in with him (and finish high school there). Apparently, her mom is OK with this wild plan. They would be in a state without a Romeo and Juliet kind of law, so he’s setting himself up for statutory rape charges, on top of all the other reasons that this is not smart. They are, of course, in love, and convinced that everything will be just fine. Is there anything we can do to talk them out of this?
A: I would certainly get in touch with your son’s girlfriend’s mother (and father, if there’s one in the picture) and try to confirm whether they’re actually OK with this; I wouldn’t trust anything either your son or his girlfriend said on her parents’ behalf. I don’t know what your son’s credit is like, how much money he has saved up, or how he’s currently paying for school, but I think it’s worth sitting down with him and talking about what you are prepared to help pay for (a dorm room, a college education) and what you’re not (everything else you mentioned in your letter).
You can, again, stress the foolhardiness of moving to a state where their relationship would no longer be protected by Romeo and Juliet laws, and figure out how you might offer support to your son’s girlfriend if she ever needed to go home. My guess is that this plan will fall apart if you don’t financially support it—I’d be surprised if your son had managed to save up a significant amount of money while also coming up with a plan this casual and slapdash—but I can understand your alarm! This is bad judgment, even for a 19-year-old.
Q. Military wife: A good friend married a career military man. He was in the military when she married him and plans to be for a while longer. Every time I speak with her, all I hear is how hard it is to not know where he is or exactly when he will be home, how she doesn’t get along with the other wives because she is liberal and from a more alternative background than the traditional spouse, and how stressed she is.
Prudence, I am SICK OF IT. We met at therapy, so she knows that she needs one but no longer seeks any support. It is exhausting to hear this over and over when I am dealing with my own life issues. It also doesn’t help that she is a recovering anorexic and has to mention how terrible she looks all the time when she has never been skinnier, and I am struggling with my own weight. Am I a bad friend for not wanting to talk to her anymore? I already have limited my calls and texts but am at a point where I just want to say, “You knew what you signed up for and know what you need, suck it up, buttercup!” Please help.
A: I am so glad you wrote to me before you reached a point where you said, “You knew what you signed up for, so suck it up, buttercup.” That would not have been an especially useful thing to say, I think, and then you’d be in the position of having to apologize to someone you really don’t want to apologize to. Tell her that you’re not available to talk about her eating disorder recovery and you hope she can resume seeing a therapist over it soon. Be honest that you’re reaching your limit when it comes to talking about her marital problems, too. That’s it! You don’t have to wait until you’re ready to scream at her; you can just be honest and calm with her now. If she’s a little hurt or put off, that’s understandable, and you don’t have to try to manage it. She needs this feedback so she can get a better sense of when she’s overwhelming her friends with endless complaints, and she can’t read your mind.
Q. Do I tell his wife? About a year ago, I met a man on an online dating site who told me he’d never been married but had a child with a “friend with benefits.” We dated for several weeks, but the amount he spoke of the kid’s mom raised enough red flags for me that I looked her up on social media (bad, I know!). About 40 wedding pictures popped up, and they were all significantly older than his son. When I asked him if I had misunderstood and that he was divorced, he flat out said he’d never been married and that she must have photoshopped him.
Then, about three months ago, I saw him on the same dating app again, “looking for a date for a Christmas party.” His wife, on the other hand, has been continuing to post some lovely family portraits. What is my obligation here? I don’t want to hurt this woman and break a family, but if my spouse was a perpetual cheater, I would want to know.
A. If you decide to simply mute or block this guy (and all of his family members) on social media, I think that would be a perfectly sound option, not least because he sounds so bad at cheating I think it’s only a matter of time before his wife figures something out. “She must have photoshopped me into those 40 wedding pictures” is just insulting to your intelligence! I’m truly sorry this guy wasted even a few weeks of your time. But if you want to give her a warning, I think there’s a case to be made for that, too. If you go that route, be brief, provide a few screenshots showing the bare minimum of what she needs to know (don’t rub salt in the wound by sharing a lot of details), offer your sympathies, and then back off.
Q. Abusive partner: What happens when the abusive partner in your relationship isn’t the other party, but yourself? Do you tell your spouse to leave?
My husband and I got into a disagreement in the car because I asked him to look up directions on my phone, not his. He was using his phone and had headphones on, so I wanted directions on mine, so I wouldn’t have to get them from him secondhand. It just made sense to me. He ignored my request, acted like I was being completely stupid, smirked at me, told me to calm down, and then I snapped. I hit him in the face with my phone and gave him a bloody nose. I had parked the car a minute before this happened because I decided to look up the directions myself.
I am so ashamed and embarrassed over my actions. I’ve lost my temper in the past and have gotten physical. Nothing like this, but still inexcusable. I should encourage him to leave, right? He’s not scared of me, but I’m still abusive, so he shouldn’t be with me. I’m truly contrite over my actions and we discussed going to counseling. I need help, he needs help—what do we do?
A: You should definitely be in counseling. Go right now. Don’t just discuss it, or leave a message with a single therapist hoping they’re available tomorrow and then giving up when you don’t hear back in a few days—make finding a therapist your No. 1 priority. You’re framing this right now as if the only person who’s able to end this relationship is your husband—either he chooses to leave you because you’re abusive, or he decides to stay and you’re forced to endure. But I think you have sufficient reason to say, “I’m horrified by my own behavior and ready to acknowledge that this is a pattern that’s getting worse. I want to stop choosing violence when I get angry. Even if those moments are isolated, they haven’t stopped and I’ve become more violent with time, not less. I can’t be a good partner right now until I’ve dealt with this.” Find someone who specializes in helping people break out of patterns of violence and take some space. That doesn’t mean you have to file for divorce tomorrow, but leaving a partner doesn’t have to be done punitively either; you can leave and find your own place, at least for a while, because you don’t trust yourself to be around your husband. Talk to some of your friends you trust and be honest about what you’re seeking help for. Ask for their support as you try to remodel your relationship to anger, violence, and the people you love.
Q. Re: Delicate workplace question: As a fat woman who works in professional setting, trust me when I tell you that there is nothing you could say to Claudia that she doesn’t already know or has heard from someone else. Fat people know we’re fat, and unless you’re our doctor, you have no idea about our health! Anything you say to Claudia concerning her weight would be unhelpful, humiliating, and rude (and honestly would make a really hostile workplace). If you really cared about Claudia as a person and as an employee, you would stand up to the discriminatory directors in your organization and tell them how hard of a worker Claudia is. I know how much I would appreciate a co-worker doing that for me.
A: Thank you for this. It’s genuinely surprising to me how often people seem to think they’ll be the first one to bring up a fat person’s size “out of concern.” This happens constantly! People feel entitled to say the most outrageous, personal things to others based on their size. A fat person’s body is not public property, nor is it inherently unprofessional.
Q. How do I share my eating disorder recovery? I am in a 12-step recovery program for eating disorders. I struggle with what we call “both sides” of the disease—I alternate between binge eating and anorexia combined with compulsive exercise. My disease has changed over the last year, and as a result I have lost a considerable amount of weight. The comments about my weight loss have gotten unmanageable—every time someone I know “compliments” me on losing weight, I spin out! I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t want to share with everyone who “compliments” me about it that I have an eating disorder, but I also want to find a way to tell people it’s inappropriate to comment on other people’s bodies. Do you have any suggestions for how to politely handle these situations?
A: I think it’s perfectly polite to say, “Please don’t comment on my body or praise my weight loss.” It may feel rude because the assumed script is that it’s normal, obvious, or reflexive to comment positively on another person’s weight loss, but it is in fact none of those things, and you’re well within your rights to ask people to stop.
Q. Re: Military wife: Tricare, the military health care system, covers marital counseling and mental health care. Your friend has access to inexpensive care and should take advantage of it.
A: Thanks for the link! Again, there are ways and ways to tell a friend you hope they’ll find a counselor. It’s fine to say, “This is been such a frequent topic of conversation I think we’ve reached a limit in terms of either how helpful I can be or how much time I want to spend talking about it. I hope you’ll find a therapist who can help you work through some of this,” less so to say, “You need a therapist because you’re exhausting.”
Q. Friend’s creepy boyfriend: I have a close friend, “Janet,” who has recently jumped back into the dating scene after a 20-year hiatus. She met a gentleman, who is seemingly very nice, but he is even nicer to other women. He hugs women just a little longer than necessary. He touches them on their backs and on their knees. He looks at other women with that distracted eye sort of thing while standing next to Janet.
Some of these other women, including my own wife, have approached me to state their instincts, as if I’m the designated person who needs to tell Janet. I can’t dismiss the feelings of my wife and other female friends, but I don’t know if saying something to Janet is crossing her “privacy” or “happiness” lines, if she’s happy.
A: I think you can (and should!) encourage your wife to say something to Janet’s boyfriend the next time you meet together. Not “Get away from me, you creep!” but “I’m not much of a hugger” or “Please don’t touch my knee, thanks.” If he seems a bit flustered or surprised but backs off, then that’s a sign that he’s simply unaware rather than attempting to make women uncomfortable. If he pushes back or tries to suggest that she’s wrong for not wanting him to set the terms of how they touch each other, then you can back her up and reiterate that it’s not his intentions that matter, but how the woman he’s touching is feeling. That’s a better approach than you speaking to Janet on her boyfriend’s behalf—he should be told about it directly.
Q. I am terrified of going to my 30th high school reunion! Three decades ago, I was class president, a state champion athlete, and member of the National Honor Society at an exclusive private high school. I graduated from a very prestigious university and later received my master’s. Due to poor career and financial choices, I stand here at middle age broke with no savings, a 14-year-old car, and three jobs just to keep a roof over my head.
My 30th high school reunion will be this year and my classmates are all asking if I will be able to get together for some fun. They want to make it a destination event that would involve airfare and staying at a resort. I haven’t been able to afford a plane ticket, let alone vacation, in many years and I am horrified about telling my classmates what I do for a living after receiving my fancy education. Many of my friends from that period were mediocre students who appear to be doing very well for themselves these days, with multiple homes and exotic vacations that will always be out of reach for me. I think they believe that I am in the same financial bracket as them (I reveal very little on social media) since I was such a star 30 years ago. How do I politely decline their invitation without telling them that I am poor and unable to afford such a trip? I enjoyed my friends in school but they are now captains of industry and I feel like they exist in a different world than I do.
A: “I won’t be able to make it, thanks for the invitation!” You don’t owe them anything more than that. Lots of people don’t go to their high school reunions; frankly, it sounds kind of exhausting regardless of how you’re doing financially. I do hope that at least some of your friends know that you’re struggling right now so you have someone to talk to about your anxieties; it would be really difficult if you felt like you had to keep up appearances with every single friend of yours.
Q. Mover or friend? Last year, I went on a road trip through a densely populated region of the U.S. Knowing I’d be driving through a city I’d otherwise never visit, I reached out to my old friend “Joanne” to see if we could have coffee. She excitedly agreed. The morning before said coffee, she sent a quick email saying she had to move apartments and wanted me to help drive her stuff over. I felt irritated but acquiesced. What actually happened was pretty unpleasant. She needed me to move stuff to and from her fifth-floor walk-up, into the street, into my car, drive it a few minutes away, then walk it up to her new place. The new apartment was infested with bugs and mold. We spent a few hours moving stuff and then had a drink at a bar next door. At the time, I was mildly annoyed, but now that I’m thinking of seeing this friend again, I feel used. Was her request appropriate? Did I bring this on myself by agreeing to do it? Is it even worth bringing up?
A: If you don’t think you’re likely to see her again, I don’t know that it’s worth hashing out after the fact; I think your best option would have been to say, “Sorry, I have time for a quick drink but I’m not available to help you move” when she made her initial request. I can see certain friendships where this sort of thing might be fine, but it’s also definitely unusual to swap out a social drink for a substantial favor. But it also sounds like your friend has a number of troubles ahead, like dealing with a bad landlord who’s let her apartment become infested with bugs and mold! I think there’s no getting that afternoon back, but you should decide that in the future you’re going to practice saying “No” when someone asks you for a sudden favor.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you in Seattle for the next live show on Wednesday.
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years and have lived together for two. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but I love him with my entire being. I have never cheated on him, but I have lied to him in the past. He, of course, inevitably discovered my lies. I lied because he has a tendency to be a little possessive and jealous.
Cut to this past weekend where he had to travel out of state for work. He asked me if I had gone out at night and I told him no. I found out later that he had actually been taping me, so he could confirm, in fact, that I had been at home. Am I allowed to be upset that he was secretly monitoring me?
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