Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Paintings of first wife: My brother’s first wife, “Lynn,” was my dearest friend and my daughter’s namesake. She was murdered, and the killer was never caught. This has devastated our family for decades. My brother is in his mid-40s now and remarried. I liked my new sister-in-law “Karen” until she requested I redecorate my house. I was an artist in my youth; some of my best works involve Lynn and my daughter. I have them scattered through our home. Lynn was an artist as well and did some watercolors of my parents and our old childhood home. I have hung those paintings in my guest room for more than a decade.
Karen pulled me aside at my parents’ home to confront me. She told me that staying at my home was “morbid” for her, she saw it as a “shrine” to Lynn, and I was “undermining” her marriage by asking her to sleep in my guest room. I was shocked. I told Karen I never gave much thought to how she would feel about my house decor. This offended Karen greatly, and she told me flat-out that my brother would never be staying in my house again. At this point, I asked Karen if I should change my daughter’s name since it must offend her so. Karen turned red and left in a huff.
The topic has not come back up, but my brother has rejected invitations to visit over the summer and will be missing the celebration for my daughter going off to college. I asked my brother if staying at a motel rather in my home would make Karen more comfortable. He stuttered and ended the call. My brother has come to every major life event for all my children. He is especially close to my daughter. I have a wedding picture of my brother and Karen on the wall with the rest of the family photos. I haven’t spoken to anyone about my conversation with Karen. What should I do? My daughter is upset her uncle isn’t coming, and my sons miss him.
A: I feel like I’ve been getting a variation on this question every day for the past few months, and I’d like to take a second to offer a PSA to people who marry widows and widowers: If they or some of their relatives keep up some pictures or other mementos of the deceased, it’s free and easy to just let it go! Having a few fond memories of a dead partner does not mean that you’re going to be pushed out at arm’s length and treated like an also-ran. Don’t demand that your partner’s relatives tear down every old photograph or piece of art that features someone they loved who died. It’s cruel, it’s demanding, and if you feel that threatened by a simple reminder of the dead, it’s not going to actually soothe your anxieties in the long run.
I think the best move for you here is to prepare to celebrate your daughter heading off to college without trying to rush a reconciliation with her uncle, while also making it clear to him that the door is always open. I also think it’s worth going through your brother, rather than directly to Karen, at least in part because she seems so threatened that I’m concerned she won’t be able to listen to reason when you offer it to her. Give him a call in a few weeks when you’ve both had the chance to get a little distance, and tell him that you want to try again, that you miss him and want him and Karen to visit, that you understand if they’d rather stay in a nearby hotel (this time offering sincerely what before was offered as a gibe).
“I keep those paintings up because I love to look at them and they remind me of a friend I miss very much. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Karen or your marriage to her, and I hope you know that. I don’t know what Karen told you about our conversation, and I certainly don’t want to put you in the middle of our disagreement. But what I mostly wanted you both to know is that, while I won’t hide those paintings, I do care about your comfort and I want to spend time together whenever we can. Do you think there’s a way for us to figure out a compromise?”
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Q. Didn’t kiss and tell: I just found out that my boyfriend of two years kissed another girl a few months ago. There was a day when he was gone and came home at about 2 a.m. very inebriated with little explanation of where he was (I know … red flag.) I had been calling and worried about him from the moment I came home from work, and he was nowhere to be found. He has bouts of depression and gave me an explanation about how he was feeling sad and needed to be alone that day. I later discovered that he had actually been out to “drinks” with another woman. He downplayed this and said I was crazy to make a big deal of it—that it was just friendly, he didn’t spend much time with her, and that it was an insignificant part of his day. I stated I thought it was inappropriate to go to drinks with another woman, not tell me about it, and then downplay it as “no big deal” when confronted about it. He continued to reiterate how it wasn’t a big deal and that I needed to move past it.
A couple of weeks ago, I figured out that he had in fact gone back to this person’s house that evening and they “made out” but it did not go any further. He has apologized extensively and stated that he was just scared and going through a hard time and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m obviously very angry for many reasons, but mostly because around the time this happened, I begged him for honesty and to talk to me if something was feeling wrong or off in our relationship, and he didn’t open up. We’ve had past conversations around monogamy in our relationship, and we agreed that if one of us ever made a mistake with someone else, it would not necessarily be the end; we just needed to communicate with each other, which I really valued.
Now we are trying to rebuild. He is trying to quit drinking (not an easy feat since he works in a bar), and he has begun counseling. I don’t want to abandon my relationship based off of a stupid makeout, but the level of betrayal here seems insurmountable. Am I a fool for giving him a chance and trying to make this work? I love my boyfriend a lot, and we have a lot of strengths in our relationship outside of what happened here, but I’m worried it’s not enough.
A: Based on the gradual unraveling of this particular anecdote, I’m half-convinced you’re going to find out in another week or two that “well, actually,” they slept together and accidentally got engaged. Your boyfriend’s version of “not trying to hurt you” apparently involves disappearing without a moment’s notice, calling you “crazy” for worrying about him, lying to you, insisting that the problem is yours for getting anxious when he disappears to get drinks with another woman, demanding you shut up and stop asking questions, and then a few weeks later revealing he cheated on you. That’s … actually remarkably hurtful! Moreover, trying to cover up the decision to go out on a date with another woman with “Sometimes I’m depressed and need to be alone” is some seriously cruel misdirection. Let’s take that claim at face value for the time being: Apparently your boyfriend’s response to sadness or going through a hard time is to set up dates with other women, get wasted, lie to you, repeatedly try to convince you that you’re making things up when you ask questions about where he’s been, and “trickle-truthing,” as the kids say, the details of his infidelity. I wouldn’t trust his claim that they “only” made out for a minute, by the way.
He’s tried to blame you, and now he’s trying to blame alcohol for a decision he made and reinforced repeatedly, not only when he was drinking. Was he drunk every single time he told you, “It’s not a big deal. You need to get over it”? I think you should pay attention to the part of yourself that says “This seems insurmountable” and “Wow, he lied to me a lot.”
Q. At a loss with my boss: I am a married mother of two. Three years ago, I had an affair with my boss, a married father of four and a longtime family friend who is more than 20 years my senior. He even got an apartment close to his business so we had a place to go. The affair lasted almost a year, longer than any other affair he’s had, and the emotional affair continued much longer. He ended the physical affair by telling me he was a codependent sex addict and that he thought I had some of those behaviors as well, and then left on a European vacation with his family. I was devastated. Since then, I have worked very hard with my therapist trying to get to the root of the reason I cheated and how to prevent this in the future.
About a year after the physical affair ended (though the emotional affair continued), I learned he slept with a mutual friend. Because he had promised to tell me if he engaged in these behaviors but had not, I immediately shifted our relationship to work-only and ceased all emotional communications. This was a very difficult time for me as I missed him dearly and felt very alone. After six months, we slept together again on a business trip (those are rare). While we did not continue the physical part, the emotional affair picked back up, and I realized how much I missed him and wanted to be with him. Knowing he would decline (keeping his marriage intact for his children has always been his goal), I confessed my feelings for him and asked if he would leave his wife for me. As expected, he turned me down. I began processing the rejection with my therapist, which brings us to today.
I finally feel some peace at work and in life in general as I’m trying to be accepting of my feelings for him and have worked very hard on treating my past traumas. I love my job, and I am really good at it; in fact, I recently got a large raise. But I’m at a loss on what to do going forward. My relationship with my husband is improving (he does not know about the affair), and I am happy with my job, though it is extremely stressful at times. However, I still have periods when I miss my boss/lover and yearn for him, and he still has moments when he makes sexual innuendoes or overshares beyond the boundaries we have established about his personal life. I have to interact with many of the women he has slept with in the past, though none of them know about each other or about me. I have to interact with my boss every day on some level, and we work incredibly well together. He has been supportive through my quest for mental health and wants me to continue working with him. Sometimes it seems utterly impossible to do that, and sometimes it seems like I have a perfect work situation that I would be stupid to give up.
A. I think that you do not have a “perfect work situation” that you would be “stupid” to give up. I think you’re in a nightmarish work situation with the world’s worst boss who has a habit of seducing and taking advantage of his younger, financially dependent subordinates that you need to leave immediately for the sake of your marriage and your own emotional well-being.
That doesn’t mean you should quit tomorrow with no plan in place. Spend some time applying for positions you’re qualified for at other companies, and ask your therapist for support as you do so. (By the way, a man who sleeps with his 20-years-younger employee, dumps her by declaring “I’m a dysfunctional sex addict, and I think you are too—now off to Europe with my family,” sleeps with their mutual friends, and overshares with his former affair partner and uses her as a surrogate partner at work is not “supportive through [her] quest for mental health.” He’s actively sabotaging that quest.) But get out of there as quickly as you can, and don’t look back.
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Q. Parents going overboard: I am a queer woman in my early 20s with Catholic parents who have always been fairly conservative. When I was growing up, we barely discussed sexuality at all, with the exception of my father occasionally making homophobic jokes.
I recently came out to them. They have so far been supportive in their way and welcoming of my partner. The problem is that they are going so far over the top to appear comfortable with my relationship that it is just odd and embarrassing. For instance, they have purchased ugly rainbow napkins that they get out whenever we come for dinner and regularly give both of us “gay”-themed gifts, some of which are just bizarre—like a box set of The L Word when neither of us even has a way of playing DVDs. My mum went as far as to give us a piece of art that is abstract but distinctly looks like labia; she told us that the artist is a lesbian. She will also comment on the sexuality of various TV personalities and say things like “That Ellen DeGeneres—what a trailblazer,” or “Kerryn Phelps, I wish she was my family doctor.” Or she will mention things she saw on YouTube about gay young people who came out and were disowned; she then follows by saying, “I’d sure like to tell those parents a thing or two.” My dad recently sent me a horribly disturbing internet video of a trans woman being beaten, with his own rant about what should be done to punish the men who did it.
Recently, my country voted to introduce gay marriage, and both of them talk endlessly about how it is a shame that the church hasn’t caught up. My mum points out that she thinks a lesbian wedding is the best kind and that she will pay just as much for my wedding as for my siblings’ (my partner and I have no plans to marry yet). My siblings think it is hilarious and will egg them on. It’s not. How do I get them to dial it down?
A. Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. This is both cringe-inducing and very-distantly-almost-sort-of-kind-of-sweet and totally over-the-top. The first thing to do is to get your siblings in line; take them aside when your parents aren’t around, and tell them that you’re going to ask your parents to take it down about 100 notches and that you’d really appreciate their support. Tell them that even though they think it’s funny, it’s really made you feel uncomfortable and singled out (and sometimes horrified, as in the case of the recording of a hate crime your father sent you) and that they would be doing you a kindness by not laughing or egging your parents on. Once you’ve gotten their buy-in (even if it’s begrudging), talk to your parents. Some of these things will probably feel easier to deal with (goofy rainbow napkins) once you’ve made it clear what’s more serious (sending you videos of anti-trans or anti-gay violence, buying you suggestive art).
“It’s meant so much to me that both of you support me and other queer people; I can’t tell you how glad I am to have your support. But please don’t feel like you have to only buy me gay-themed gifts—I really don’t need or expect that from you. And it’s actually painful to see reminders of homophobia and transphobia, so please don’t send me links to hate crimes, even if it is to tell me how much you disagree with them. I see things like that often enough, and I know how much bigotry is still out there. It would mean a lot to me if you could both agree not to send me any more of those.”
Q. From nowhere and everywhere: I am 32 years old, and I have been traveling a lot this past year. I meet new people around the world, and this is very fulfilling, except that I have been dumbfounded by one question I am frequently asked: “Where are you from?” I have only one nationality (from my European birth country), but indicating my citizenship doesn’t satisfy anyone I have met so far: Some people ask for a specific area, and some are puzzled because I don’t fit the stereotype, so they tend to additionally inquire about my heritage.
The thing is I have many heritages; my four grandparents are all from at least four different ethnicities and/or countries. Second, I have lived in different places since I was a baby, and the place where I have lived the longest is the place I relate to the least (12 years as a child). As of today, I am not particularly attached to one place, nor to one specific ethnic heritage. I have literally no fixed residence because I move around more than I settle, and between two long trips, I’m hosted by one or another relative. I have family scattered throughout three continents.
When I meet new people, though, I don’t want to tell everything I just wrote here because oftentimes, I don’t feel like revealing my whole life path or explaining why this may be a complicated question, especially when I’ve just met the person (I don’t mind discussing it later if the relationship goes deeper). How can I respond briefly, simply, without ambiguity, and in a way that will stop short or satisfy any more inquiring minds?
A. “I’m from [country of origin], but I have family in a few different countries. Sometimes people won’t stop asking me this question until I give them every detail about my family’s ethnic background. It’s weirdly common and gets pretty irritating, so I’m glad you’re not quite so boorish and know when to move on to a different topic of conversation.”
Q: Stuck between two loves: I am completely stumped. My youngest brother and I have been very close our entire lives; we are in our 50s now. He is single with no kids; I am married with six kids, all grown. My brother has always been close with my kids, or so I thought.
Out of the blue last month, my youngest daughter told my husband and me that my brother “hurt” her. She refuses to go into detail other than hinting that he molested her. I don’t know what to think. I have always told my girls that if anything ever happened to them, sexually or otherwise, that I would believe them. I’m having a very hard time with this, though. I can’t imagine my brother doing anything inappropriate with (or to) my kids, but I also can’t imagine that my daughter would make this up. She refuses to be anywhere that he is, which usually isn’t a problem as he lives several hours away, but he is planning a trip to see us in the next couple of months.
How do I navigate believing my daughter and, at the same time, not believing my brother could do something like this? Do I suddenly, and without explanation, ghost my brother? I think that telling him what my daughter says will be devastating for him, especially if he didn’t actually do anything wrong. Without any details it’s impossible to know, but my daughter absolutely refuses to talk about it. Please give me some guidance here.
A: You’ve said that you would always believe your children if they told you someone hurt them, and your child has told you someone hurt her—the way forward here is clear. The path isn’t a complicated one, but it is extremely painful. Tell your daughter that you’re so sorry someone hurt her and you weren’t able to protect her in the moment, that you will not share what she told you in confidence, that you will never ask her to spend time with her uncle, and that if she ever wants to talk to you about what happened, she has your full attention and support.
The implied question in your letter—“This is so out of the blue. How can it possibly be real? How can my child have been hurt or molested without my having noticed something at the time?”—is a deep and painful one, and I don’t have all of the answers for you. But you should, I think, trust that your daughter stands to gain nothing from telling you this, and in fact risked a great deal to speak up, and that sexual abuse is very common within families. Right now your daughter has not asked you to do anything, either to cut off your brother or to speak to him—she’s only asked for space for herself. Please find a therapist that you can talk to about this so your daughter isn’t the only person you can speak to on the subject. Be prepared to listen, to be patient, to offer support, and to hear things you don’t want to be true.
Q. Re: Paintings of first wife: I highly recommend Emily Yoffe’s wonderful essay about her marriage to her husband, who was a widower. It’s loving and graceful, and grateful as well.
A. I think this is a great time to revisit that essay too. It was a beautiful piece, and I think of it often.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone, and remember to stick to redecorating your own houses. See you next week!
Q. He cheated, but my behavior was worse: I’ve been with my boyfriend for over 10 years. We have a great relationship with normal ups and downs over the years. I’ve recently suspected he might be cheating, but after searching his phone (I know, I’m sorry), I couldn’t find any evidence. I confronted him with it and he denied it. Well, after coming home from an annual OB-GYN appointment, I cried to him that I was diagnosed with herpes. I was so upset and again brought up his potential cheating, as it’s the only way I could have gotten an STD. He broke down, admitted to an infidelity, and was devastated he gave it to me. We’ve done some real work and are back on track. But: I made it all up. I was never diagnosed but thought the lie would get him to confess. It did! And I feel awful. Am I a monster?
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