Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, happy Tax Day, et cetera. Let’s chat!
Q. Wedding planning woes: My fiancée and I are getting married this summer and have a wedding budget of $30,000 for 175 guests, which is below average for our state (and we live in the largest metropolitan area). My father is a stingy multimillionaire who has refused to provide more than $7,500 because he thinks, on principle, that each parent should pay for a quarter of the wedding. My mom is a public servant who took an entry-level job following their divorce, and my fiancée’s parents are also in solidly middle-class jobs. My mom has found the money; my fiancée’s parents are still trying. We can afford to put in some money ourselves, but it would be a sizable chunk of the money we are saving to buy a home.
What do we do here? Should we disinvite people? Should we just cancel the wedding and elope? (We would lose about $5,000 in deposits.) Should we put in the money ourselves and refuse to do father-daughter things like walking down the aisle, first dance, etc.? I am really angry with my dad for his inflexibility and stinginess. I am also angry with myself and my fiancée for proceeding with a wedding the size we want (even though we have been fairly frugal in our other choices) when finances were unclear.
A: While your father may be stingy, I agree that the real responsibility lies with you and your fiancée in going so far in the wedding-planning process as inviting people without knowing if you could afford to host them. You could have easily avoided that by sending out invitations only after the budget was finalized and clarifying ahead of time with all of your parents how much money they were willing to contribute to the ceremony. Maybe your father has a long-standing history of miserly behavior, but he’s also well within his rights not to want to spend more than $7,500 on a single day, no matter what the “state average” is for wedding budgets.
First, the obvious: Please do not spend money you’ve set aside to buy a home to hold an extravagant, spite-driven wedding where you pointedly don’t include your father in the ceremony. Don’t invest your money in short-term pique, and especially don’t ask your less-than-wealthy relatives to place themselves in financially insecure positions just to get you back up to scratch. I also just can’t advise you to disinvite some of your guests but not others, especially when I don’t know how many you’d need to cut from the list in order to afford the ceremony. You would, of course, have to either tell those guests in person or over the phone—simply sending out “Sorry, we miscalculated and you can’t come after all, our deepest regrets” messages wouldn’t cut it. I don’t want you to have to make 50 phone calls and then field questions and confusion from the remaining 125 guests. If I were in your position, I would eat the $5,000 deposit (better to lose a certain $5K than ask my future in-laws to go into debt or give up a down payment on a home), cancel the wedding so that there’s not an obvious first and second tier of guests, send out fulsome apologies, and elope. Maybe sometime in the first year you could host a low-key party at home to celebrate with your family and friends, but leave the big, expensive wedding out of it.
I’d welcome suggestions from other readers too! I realize this is just a tricky situation to be in, and there is probably not one great solution. (But let’s try to keep the recriminations to a minimum; at a certain point it will just become piling on, and I think this letter writer needs a workable plan of action.)
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Q. Guilty with a sex drive: I’m a 27-year-old queer and nonbinary person. Most of my adult life, I’ve been in non-monogamous relationships with men where I slept with other people occasionally. I always thought I would never be able to be monogamous. Two years ago, I met my current partner and we decided to have a closed relationship. I love him and only have romantic feelings for him, so it works in that regard.
Last year, I discovered a medical issue with my ovaries. On top of that, my lifelong depression reared its ugly head. All sexual desire I had evaporated, and I became disinterested and even repulsed by sex. I felt guilty that I didn’t want it anymore, so I went through the motions with my partner, even though it made me miserable. He also pressured and coerced me several times after I turned him down. This made things worse and I became extremely anxious about being touched. With time and therapy, I slowly worked on enjoying sex with him again and feeling safe. My libido was still low, though. I recently had surgery on my ovary and suddenly all I want to do is have sex—with other people. I started fantasizing about an old flame from high school and struck up a conversation with him on social media. It was a super risky, stupid idea. But unprovoked, he mentioned that he’s still sexually attracted to me. I told him I was seeing someone and couldn’t get involved. It took all my self-restraint.
This guy lives across the country and we aren’t in the same social circle, so I’m probably never going to see him in person. All I want to do is send him dirty messages. I just want to have fun, no strings attached, with someone who can’t touch me in person. I feel so tempted and guilty at the same time. My partner has mentioned that if we opened our relationship, he wouldn’t want me to have sex with men. Am I selfish to ask him for a pass here? I’m terrified that he’ll get jealous and it will implode our relationship.
A: My main concern, reading your letter, is this bit: “He also pressured and coerced me several times after I turned him down.” I don’t want to read more into this than what you’ve written, but “coercion” feels a bit more serious than mere garden-variety sexual frustration, ineptly expressed. I know you said that therapy was helpful and that you later felt good sleeping with your partner again, but I’m really curious about how he has grappled with his choice to coerce you into sex you didn’t want to have. If part of you already felt a bit guilty or pressured to live up to your former sex drive, you may not have allowed yourself to really let yourself be hurt and angry with him. What has he done to try to regain your trust? Has he apologized? Has he done any soul-searching or meaningful internal work since then? Do you believe that, if your sex drive were to drop again, your partner would resort to pressure and coercion again? You say that you just want to have fun with someone who can’t touch you in person, and that suggests to me that what you want and need right now is to feel totally safe and in control of your own body. It also suggests to me that you don’t feel like you can be really safe and in control of your own body with your partner.
I certainly think you should talk to your boyfriend about the fact that your libido is back, and that you have been thinking about having sex with other people, specifically men. I also think you should talk more about the lingering pain and distrust you’re experiencing as a result of his decision to coerce you into sex you didn’t want to have. If he’s not receptive to that, or if he gets defensive or tries to downplay his actions, I think you need more than just a hall pass—I think you need to break up with him. I don’t say that lightly. I understand that you’re terrified of losing him, that you love him, and that you feel horribly guilty already—just for having a friendly conversation with an ex where you told him you were involved with someone else. I don’t think you should feel guilty, because you have behaved honestly and honorably. But I think the reason you don’t feel a desire to be intimate with your partner right now is because your libido doesn’t trust him right now. And I think, at least based on what you’ve described in your letter, you’re right not to trust him.
Q. Keeping my baby away: I have a cousin, “Todd,” who has been ostracized by the majority of our large family because of domestic violence, false CPS reports, and manic episodes at family gatherings. When his brother “Jim” and his wife were expecting their first child, they asked Jim and Todd’s mother not to tell Todd about the baby, for fear of claims to CPS.
Their mother then proceeded to share photos of the newborn with Todd. Although nothing horrible happened, I cannot stress this enough: I know Todd firsthand to be violent, manipulative, and erratic. My fiancé and I are now expecting our first child, and I feel very strongly that Todd should know nothing about this, let alone have pictures of our child in his possession. How can I communicate this to my aunt more effectively than the way her own son tried?
A: Don’t share pictures of the baby with your aunt. Tell her in advance that you are doing this because of the choices she made when Jim’s baby was born. She decided the last time a baby entered the family to prioritize Todd’s whims over the parents’ clearly stated (and perfectly justifiable) wishes, and you have every reason to believe she’ll do the same thing this time around.
Q. “Girls only” birthday trip: My mom is planning a “girls’ trip” vacation with my sister and me to celebrate her upcoming birthday. She’s super excited, and so am I. The problem is that I’m in a relationship with a woman, and my sister is in a relationship with a man. My mom adores my girlfriend and was quick to invite her on the trip and include her in planning conversations, so my sister hoped that her boyfriend would be invited too. However, my mom decided that she wanted the trip to be women-only.
Ultimately, it’s my mom’s birthday and I’m inclined to stay out of it and let her do what she wants, and I’ve been with my girlfriend for longer, for what it’s worth, but the gender-based exclusion feels weird to me, and it puts my sister and me in an awkward position. I don’t think my mom considered how uncomfortable it would be for my sister to break it to her boyfriend that he isn’t invited while my partner is, and she didn’t talk to me before inviting my girlfriend along. I’m thrilled that she’s coming, but that seems like an oversight. My mom decided that she wanted the trip to allow her some time away from her own husband, but she made decisions for my sister and I about whether we would want time away from our partners without asking either of us.
Is this worth bringing up to my mom, or does she have the right to invite one child’s partner but not the other? Is this even any of my business?
A: I think you certainly get to have input in this conversation! It’s your mom’s birthday, yes, but birthdays don’t mean everyone else has to drop everything and stop having opinions. I think (checking in to make sure your partner is OK with it) you should tell your mother that you’d prefer to keep the trip boyfriend- and girlfriend-free. “It’s easier for [Sister] and me to have a consistent partner-or-no-partner policy, and I would feel a little guilty having my girlfriend there while her boyfriend stays at home. I know you didn’t mean anything by asking [Partner], but I’d rather just have a getaway with the three of us, and maybe invite our partners out to have dinner all together when we get back. How does that sound to you?”
Q. Re: Wedding planning woes: I am curious as to why the letter writer thought their dad would contribute much, since it doesn’t seem like the stinginess is new. I kind of don’t believe that anyone getting married at this point should expect their parents to fund their wedding, and it’s a shame that they started planning a $30K affair that they clearly can’t afford before finding out they weren’t getting much help.
A: I’m curious about that too! It may be a good idea for the letter writer to reconsider their relationship to acting on the basis of assumptions. If this is something they do a lot (or even just some of the time), they might be able to save themselves a lot of future headaches by double-checking before making big financial or logistical commitments. In general, I think anyone planning a wedding should treat possible contributions by family members as an unexpected gift—it’s great if they do, but it’s not something you should expect of them, and if they can’t or won’t, you shouldn’t hold it over their heads.
Q. Bittersweet: I am a lesbian. “Chloe” was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend for years. She left him after he killed her dog. I was her co-worker at the time and took Chloe in with nothing but a backpack for six months while she worked to file a restraining order. Luckily, he got arrested on assault charges. He pleaded down to five years in prison. Chloe had a “sexual awakening” while we were setting her up in a new apartment and a new life. She told me she never considered women before me, but I was “special.” It was stupid. I had a crush on her and wanted it to be true. We dated for six weeks when, in a drunken haze, Chloe confessed she slept with her new male neighbor. I ended up comforting her because Chloe burst into tears and started sobbing about how screwed up she was and how wonderful I was, and I just wanted it to stop.
Now Chloe wants to be “friends” and take time to “figure herself out,” but she is seeing this new neighbor (I follow her on Instagram), and you don’t post kissing photos with platonic friends. Chloe still wants to hang out and talk until the wee hours of the morning, and it is like swallowing broken glass for me. I stupidly fell in love and told her so. I stupidly thought this would stick. I know this is all my fault, but it kills me to be there for Chloe, knowing what I want will never happen. This is my fault, not hers. I can’t find a way to disengage with Chloe without hurting her. I am 90 percent her support system here and she constantly says she would die if not for me. Chloe has been through too much to make me leave her alone, but it is killing me a little more every time we laugh together, and I know it is never going to be. How do I save myself here without betraying her?
A: Oh, I’m so sorry. Bittersweet is not quite the word I would use to describe this situation. It sounds unbelievably painful and completely unsustainable. I’m deeply concerned for your well-being, and the fact that Chloe tells you that her life depends on your constant availability is a real red flag. I understand that she’s suffered terrible abuse, and I’m not suggesting that she’s doing this out of boredom just to hurt you, but you cannot be her only support system, and what she’s asking of you is not kind or reasonable.
Look at this sentence: “Chloe has been through too much to make me leave her alone.” What that means is this: By virtue of Chloe’s past suffering—which you did not cause and you are not responsible for—you two have decided that you are not allowed to set boundaries, pull back, or say no to her. That’s extremely unhealthy, and frankly it’s not going to help her actually heal or take care of herself. She hurt you deeply when she left you for her neighbor, and you found yourself having to comfort her and ignore your own pain. Just because she was sad when she mistreated you doesn’t make it OK. If Chloe’s happiness and well-being depend on you doing what she wants, then her happiness and well-being are not real—they’re based on control and manipulation. I’m not saying that Chloe is necessarily a bad person, or trying to equate her to her abusive ex, but you absolutely need to take a long break from this friendship. Please tell someone else in your life about what’s been going on and ask for support. No one, no matter what they’ve experienced in the past, has the right to tell someone (an ex, no less) “You can’t leave me because my well-being and my life depend on you.”
Q. Re: Wedding planning woes: Cancel and just know that you lost the deposit money. It’s going to be OK, even though you didn’t have a big wedding. Elope or even just do a small ceremony at the courthouse with your parents and siblings. Save the rest of your money and have a wonderful, warm, and welcoming housewarming party when you get your first house. It will be a far less stressful party and much more fun and memorable. The marriage isn’t the wedding—your marriage is the partnership and life the two of you create together.
A: I think that’s the right approach too. I can imagine there’s a part of the letter writer that wants to salvage that $5K in deposits, but it’s not worth throwing away a lot of good money after bad at this point. It’s hard to swallow a financial loss, and $5K isn’t chump change, but it’s so much better to just accept one loss than to compound it.
Q. The scapegoat: I’m very close to my 19-year-old nephew, “Ryan.” I’m also close with his mom, my sister “Tabitha.” Tabitha and her husband were separated when she got pregnant with Ryan by another man. This man wanted nothing to do with Ryan, and Tabitha and her husband reconciled and her husband stepped up and raised Ryan as his own son. He has been a good father.
Tabitha has never told Ryan about his biological father and has sworn all of us to secrecy. We have a large family and the facts about Ryan’s circumstances are common knowledge among all of the adults. I have other nieces and nephews who are Ryan’s cousins, and one cousin in particular, “Scott,” is very close to Ryan. The cousins have also become aware of this “secret” recently, and I have been blamed for leaking the secret although I have NEVER told the cousins and certainly not Scott. Through the years, I have encouraged Tabitha to tell Ryan the truth because there is no way in hell he won’t find out eventually.
Now that Scott knows, it’s just a matter of time. Tabitha has basically disowned me. I think the best course of action for me is just to keep my mouth shut and let things play out naturally, but do you have any other advice for me at this time?
A: I think that’s a good strategy too; Tabitha’s clearly been living in a dream world for the past 19 years and looking for someone to blame. (I am curious, though, about your slightly tortured defense that you “NEVER told the cousins and certainly not Scott”—did you tell some other relative who might have told them? That wouldn’t make you primarily responsible for a situation Tabitha engineered by telling other people who weren’t her son in the first place, of course, but if there’s a small part you need to take responsibility for, I think it’s worth doing.)
That aside, I think there’s merit in trying to contact Tabitha one last time before granting her space to have whatever meltdown she’s decided to embark upon. Something relatively gentle and low-pressure, like: “I know this must be a hard time for you right now. I can assure you that I did not tell any of the cousins about Ryan, and while I’ve always encouraged you to tell him the truth, I wouldn’t undercut your decision and tell anyone against your express wishes. If you need space right now, I understand, but I hope you’ll give me a call if you need anything.” Beyond that, I think laying low is your best strategy; Tabitha has to reckon with some bad choices, and she might spend a little time trying to blame other people for it first. Here’s hoping she snaps out of it sooner rather than later.
Q. Re: Bisexual or messed up? Original letter writer here! The bad news: Some absolute villain sent John your column last week with the message “Do you think this is about you?” and I am still mortified. The GREAT news: John called me about it and we had a long talk, and have arranged to go on a date and see how things go! His only criticism of your response was that it did not come down heavily enough on the “you should totally date John” side of things.
I really appreciated your advice, in particular about my sister, whom I’ve had another talk with. The phrase “trauma-induced bisexuality” really made an impression on both of us about how her position sounded, and I appreciated having it put into words that this had messed with me so much because she had made me feel like I couldn’t know my own mind anymore after the Eva relationship. I’m still going pretty cautiously with this, but feel a lot better moving forward now I’ve been open with John—hopefully at some point this will become more of a funny than mortifying story to me! Thanks a lot for your response.
A: Oh wow, thank you so much for this update! I hope the villain reveals him- or herself and you can cut them socially at your next cotillion. I’m so glad the phrase “trauma-induced bisexuality” was helpful to you in reframing your sister’s seemingly reasonable but in fact quite silly objection. I’m so glad you and John talked and that it went well. I hope you two have a wonderful first date and wish you both the best in whatever happens next. Please keep us posted—we’re rooting for you both!
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From Care and Feeding
“One of my friends drives me batty sometimes. She absolutely insists that her almost–4-year-old daughter will not give up her pacifier, and that it’s such a struggle. Mind you, I am not around them often. But when I am, I, no exaggeration, never, ever see the girl cry, or even ask, for the pacifier, yet my friend will just pop it her mouth, or call out, “Here honey, I have your passy!” while the girl is otherwise engaged. It’s not even like she is crying and can’t be calmed down. The girl accepts it, but was totally fine without it. It gets under my skin so much, because the girl is too old for a pacifier, and yet my friend is not only doing nothing about it but actually encouraging this habit. I pretty much know this is rhetorical, because my friend wouldn’t accept any advice from me anyway, since I’m not a parent, but is there anything I can say?”