Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Loans and little sister: I’ve always had a strained relationship with my parents, and I limit my visits to a handful of holidays and special occasions, mostly to see my little sister. About four years ago, my mother started making passive-aggressive comments to me about money and responsibility, but she wouldn’t give me any details about what was upsetting her when I asked. I didn’t think much about it, since she does this kind of thing a lot, and I just went home if things got too weird. This year, my dad casually announced that “the reason Mom is so upset” is because he has allowed her to believe a personal loan he took out several years ago was for money I asked him for and am now defaulting on. For context, I haven’t asked them for money in nearly a decade, and it was always very small amounts that I paid back. Dad also expects me to pay this loan off for him, since “it’s outside our budget.” To make matters worse, I found out my mother is telling my little sister that I essentially stole money from them and am generally a terrible person. This is likely why she canceled her plan to move in with me for her first year of college, which we’d both been excited about before.
I was too shocked and angry to say much in the moment, and now my dad keeps asking me to commit to vague payment plans, while refusing to let me see any details about the actual loan and admonishing me to not tell my mother the truth. I don’t want to keep this secret, but I also don’t want to put myself in the middle of their marriage. Given that I have offered in the past to help them financially and they refused each time, I’m pretty sure that this is just their way of making me the bad guy no matter what I do, and maintaining control over my sister. Part of me wants to never speak to them again. But I don’t want to become estranged from my sister if I can help it; I know from experience how hard it’s going to be for her to find any independence from them, and I want to be there for her.
A: Good Lord! Do not keep this secret for your father a second longer. You are already so far in the middle of your parents’ marriage, through no fault of your own, that telling the truth would actually get you less involved. There is no good reason for you to keep this to yourself; if your main concern is to maintain a relationship of some kind with your sister, allowing her to continue to incorrectly believe that you have been soaking your parents for money they can’t afford to lose is the quickest way to lose said relationship. You also say that your dad keeps asking you to commit to vague payment plans, which makes me worry that you’re not just helping him stay on track to pay his loan back but that you’re actually paying it for him. I’m not unequivocally opposed to giving family members money, but not under these circumstances.
It sounds like your sister is close to the college age, and while she may have a closer relationship to your parents than you do, they won’t be able to directly control your ability to speak to her for much longer. I think she’s the first person you should talk to about this, since your relationship with her is the one that’s most important to you: “I’ve just realized I’m in a really awkward position. Dad recently told me that he took out a personal loan a couple of years ago, and instead of telling Mom about it, he claimed that I’d borrowed money from him and was refusing to pay it back. I’d noticed she made little comments about money here and there, but I would never have put it together myself. I’m frustrated and hurt that Dad did this without talking to me, and I’m worried that he may have told you the same thing, which might be part of why we suddenly stopped talking about moving in together. I don’t want to pressure you to do anything you don’t want to do, but our relationship is really important to me, and if you’d ever like to revisit the idea of living together, I’d love to talk about it.”
You don’t have to make any decisions about long- or short-term estrangement with your parents right now if you don’t yet know what you want from them. But please stop covering for your father. You didn’t create this situation, and you’re not actually helping him by allowing him to throw you under the bus.
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Q. Office crush gone wrong: I’m relatively new to love—and I feel like I’ve gotten myself into a mess that I can’t get out of. I’m a 27-year-old American expat living in Hong Kong. Last year, a guy (Jason) transferred to our office from the headquarters. I felt that there was incredible chemistry between us, and we hung out a lot after work. We had good conversations about movies, philosophy, politics. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, when we decided to watch the fireworks on the pier together. It took a lot of courage, but I felt that it was the right moment to confess my feelings to him, so I did. After my confessions, he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me but he did appreciate having me in his life. I felt slightly wounded. My ego was bruised. But I figured at least I could work on getting over him.
Things were a bit awkward after NYE, but we remained friends. He’s more senior than me at work, so I can’t just straight-up not talk to him or give him the cold shoulder. He told me that he has been chatting with this local yoga instructor on Bumble, and he was extremely enchanted by her. This girl apparently speaks broken English, but they have “meaningful, deep conversations.” However, he has only met her once in the entire eight months they have known each other.
One day, he told me over coffee that he has two best friends in Hong Kong: One is her, one is me. I thought I had already gotten over him, but when I heard that, I almost wanted to scream in his face. How could he possibly put me in the same category with her? I see him and talk to him every day, and she is this elusive figure whom he has only met once. I don’t know how they can have good conversations when her English is limited. Is he just trying to mess with my head? Is he trying to manipulate me? I know I’m living in a vicious cycle of jealousy—how can I get out of it when I need to see him every day?
A: Oh, boy. This is a bad situation all around, and I’m not wild about Jason’s ability to set boundaries at work. But let’s get one thing clear: You haven’t met this particular yoga instructor, you have no idea what kind of conversations they have, and obsessively focusing on her “broken English” is not going to lead to something flourishing for you. Either Jason is playing up his relationship with her because he wants to really, really stress to you that he’s unavailable (which is an unnecessary, clumsy way to try to keep his distance from a colleague with a crush), or he’s just incredibly clueless and has way too low of a bar for what constitutes a best friend. Either way, the salient point is this: Jason does not value or reciprocate your affection. He may be fond of you in a broad, casual way, but he has absolutely no idea how much of your time you devote to trying to figure him out, because he spends very little time thinking about you when you’re not right in front of him. He’s not trying to mess with your head; don’t assume crafty manipulation explains his behavior when mild self-centeredness and low-stakes feelings do a better job.
You may have to see him on a regular basis at work, but that doesn’t mean you have to consider yourself his best friend or get coffee with him every time he suggests it. Assume that he’s not aware of how difficult it is for you to get over him, and be friendly but way less available to him. If he’s clueless enough to ask you about why you’re no longer able to get coffee at the drop of a hat (I hope he’s not, but Jason sounds pretty clueless to me), you can just say, “I need a little time and space to get over my crush, and I really appreciate you bearing with me as I do so.”
Q. Quizzical trivia problem: My husband and I moved to a new city about a year and a half ago. Pretty quickly, we joined a pub trivia team that has since become the focal point of our social life (nerdy as that may be). It’s the highlight of our week and a fun opportunity to cut loose with our friends. There is drinking involved, and many of us smoke weed (it’s legal where we live) during the lulls between rounds.
Recently, one of our team members started bringing his 14-year-old son to the bar with him. This team member is a generation older than us. (The rest of the members in our group are in their late-20s or early-30s, and none of us have kids.) I feel it’s very inappropriate to bring this child, and he’s not an innocuous addition. He makes judgmental comments about people’s drinking (“I’d love to know what your BAC level is right now”), and when one of the female teammates started dancing, he ogled her and made money-throwing gestures as if she were a stripper. I found this demeaning and rude, and it made her feel ashamed and uncomfortable. His dad tries to conceal our smoking from him by saying we’re all going to get pizza when we go outside or making up other lies. We’re not supposed to talk about where we’re going or where we’ve been. One team member made a comment about smoking and received a reproving glance from the kid’s father, followed by a series of awkward questions. The kid is observant and engaged, often peppering people with questions, asking for feedback on his Dungeons and Dragons storylines, or trying to show people his sketches. He’s not just sitting quietly in a corner—his presence is impossible to ignore.
This is often the one time a week I interact with these friends, and I want to be able to talk about their romantic exploits, make jokes about drinking or smoking, do shots when we win, have impromptu dance parties, etc. My husband says that we have no right to dictate who can and cannot attend trivia. Other team members regularly bring friends or co-workers, and it’s not “our” team that we have any kind of authority to dictate who can or cannot join. I feel like a 14-year-old child falls into a different category than an “annoying friend,” but my husband is pretty adamant that my options are to 1) do my best to ignore the kid, 2) stop going to trivia, or 3) form a new team. None of those options appeal to me. I feel like I can’t be comfortable engaging with my peers in the way I want to when this kid is around. Is there a fourth way? What can I do without being a total jerk?
A: Not to be a total narc, but what kind of bar lets a 14-year-old hang out for hours? It’d be one thing if it were an all-ages restaurant that happened to serve drinks, and I’m well aware that plenty of bars welcome babies and kids little enough that they can’t be parted from a parent, but a 14-year-old seems like exactly the kind of person bars are designed to keep out. I certainly think you have the option of bringing it up. Telling your trivia mate that you’re anxious about having an underage member of the team when the rest of you are drinking and smoking certainly isn’t an attempt to dictate anything to him. I think you have grounds to ask him to reconsider bringing his kid around, and if he refuses to budge, then you can go ahead and form an adults-only team.
Q. Concerned daughter: I am in my mid-20s and have a great relationship with my parents. I talk to them frequently on the phone and visit often. The thing is, over the years, I have grown concerned about my mother’s health, both mental and physical. She was a stay-at-home mom when my siblings and I were young, but when we grew up, she never pursued getting a job, volunteer work, hobbies, or anything else. It seems to me she’s spent the past decade since we moved out just cooking meals for her and my father and doing the laundry and dishes, and that’s it. Their home has grown more and more dirty over the years, and she seems so isolated. Her health is poor; she is very overweight, eats whatever she wants, and never exercises. I believe she often goes days without leaving the house at all. But she doesn’t “act” depressed otherwise—if you visit or call, she chats cheerfully with you like everything is completely fine.
I have broached the subject with my father, and he said he’s learned nothing he says gets through and that she only will do what she wants to do. I feel bad for both of them: My father has worked extremely hard at a blue-collar job to provide for our family over the years and comes home every day to a filthy house. I think my mother likely has untreated depression and/or other mental health conditions that cause these problems, but I don’t know what to do. Any gentle suggestions I’ve made in the past (for example: “Why don’t you join a book club? Maybe you should start going on walks with the neighbor”) have been brushed off with a “No, I don’t think that sounds like fun”, or “Yeah, maybe … ” but no action. I think seeing a therapist or mental health professional would be good for her, but I am confident she would be resistant to the suggestion. I also am afraid she would think I was insulting her by insinuating she needs therapy. Her father recently passed away, and I was thinking of suggesting seeing a therapist as a way to handle this loss and process childhood trauma stemming from her parents. Should I do that, or be honest about my concern about her lifestyle in general?
A: I think it’s fine if, over the course of a conversation about bereavement with your mother, you ask if she’s ever considered seeing a grief counselor. You might even mention that you’ve benefited from therapy yourself. (I assume you’ve been; if you haven’t, and your mother isn’t receptive, I’d suggest you go yourself.) But beyond that, I don’t think you’ve described anything here that rises to an actionable level. If your father is unhappy with their work-life balance, then it’s incumbent on him to speak to his wife about it; if he’s decided it’s not worth the hassle of having an argument about, that’s a shame, but I don’t think it means he should try to get the kids involved. If your father wants to come home to a clean house, he can clean it himself, hire a cleaning service, or have a difficult conversation with his wife; all of those things are within his power. And if there were an immediate health concern (like “she has accidents around the house and frequently cuts herself but won’t go see a doctor”) I might encourage you to escalate, but you’ve mentioned your concerns to her before and she still doesn’t want to join a book club or get a gym membership.
I understand that you want your mother to be happy and that you have real reason to think her standard of a good-enough life isn’t as high as you might wish it were. But I think you have to allow for her right to make choices that you disagree with. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever bring therapy up or offer gentle criticism, but if she decides not to take it, you have to back off. Certainly keep your eyes open, and if things deteriorate to the point where you fear for her mental health or believe either of them to be in more immediate danger, you might revisit the subject and be more forceful about scheduling a doctor’s visit or a wellness check. But I don’t think that day has yet come.
Q. Fun without him: I am a woman in my early-30s, and I have been married for 10 years this summer. My husband is incredible—kind, generous, funny, supportive of my career, has a wonderful family, loves my family, and, in the inimitable words of Zoolander, is “really, really ridiculously good-looking.” I want to write apology cards to everyone who can’t be married to him because I am.
My miracle of a husband does not enjoy socializing. I like seeing friends outside work (dinner, brunch, a show, etc.) two or three times a month; he’s wholly satisfied with perhaps half that frequency. This isn’t an introvert-extrovert issue. (For what it’s worth, I test and identify as an ambivert, and he’s more clearly an introvert.) He just has lower need for an interest in social interaction beyond the two of us, even when it’s one on one or in a very small group. He’s pretty cerebral, and over the course of his life, he’s always had a handful of close, deep friendships, and he spends most of his time working, with his family, or occasionally that handful of people. He’s charming and wonderful when we do go out with others, but he’s clear about the fact that he’s not interested in doing any more of it than we currently do. I think this is totally reasonable—he has reflected on what’s meaningful and satisfying to him, it’s OK that his answer is different from mine, and we both feel like we talk and compromise about this in a healthy way.
My questions regard interactions about this with my friends who are in relationships. I can’t seem to communicate my husband’s preferences about this in a way that isn’t confusing or hurtful to them. I will very happily individually make plans to hang out with a couple, but when I make an invitation just from myself or reply to their invites with something along the lines of “[My husband] unfortunately isn’t able to make it, but if it’s OK if there are just three of us, I’d love to join you,” they want to know where he is, insist we reschedule when he can join, and generally have a lot of follow-up questions to anything general and warm I try to relay. My friends have all met him, but managing a rotation with the frequency he prefers, they would only see him a couple of times a year. It’s easy to get out of this in the short term by claiming a work obligation (his job has unpredictable and nontraditional hours), but that isn’t believable forever. I’ve had a friend say in exasperation, “I know other detectives, and I know they all eat dinner!”
On the other hand, a more honest “He likes you very much and is happy to see you as often as he sees other friends, but he prefers not to go out regularly” sounds like we’re hiding something. This isn’t an issue with my single friends, and I don’t think it would be an issue with his male friends—said more specifically, I don’t think a partnered man would be miffed if my husband said, “Sure, but [my wife] can’t make it.” Part of my frustration is admittedly that I think this problem is gendered and rooted in expectations specifically about how a married woman of a certain social class is expected to behave. (I grew up proudly working-class in rural middle America and now have a comfortable finance career in the Bay Area. I don’t remember this couples-have-to-go-out-with-couples thing being a problem in the former setting.) There also seems to be a miasma of “Is he not a good husband to you because he doesn’t want to do this?” That’s something I don’t appreciate. How can I explain this to friends I otherwise care about very much? And more philosophically, am I crazy to think it shouldn’t be a big deal if my husband and I don’t take every social engagement together?
A: I wonder, if you were to show your husband this letter and talk to him about just how much time and energy you have to spend making excuses for him to your friends, if he might reconsider going on an additional outing or two a month, even if it’s only for an hour and he begs off early to go be an introvert. Not in a punishing sense, as in “Look what you’ve reduced me to with your selfishness,” but in the sense of “Sometimes, when you prioritize your alone time, I’m hit with some unfair, maybe-unintentionally sexist expectations. It takes a lot out of me. I’m not asking you to go out with me and our friends every week, but I wanted to share with you how difficult it can be sometimes, because you haven’t seen it before. Do you think we could occasionally revisit our going-out policy? What would you need in order to feel comfortable going out to, say, one more dinner a month? If you could leave early, would that help? If we invited people over here? Let’s discuss all our options.”
In addition to that, I think you can push back a little bit with some of your friends: “Lt. Stabler takes a lot of downtime, and sometimes that means I want to go out when he doesn’t. I sometimes feel like I’m being called upon to account for him or to reassure other people that our marriage is OK, and it feels like a lot of pressure. I want to see you, I’m very happily married, and it would mean a lot to me if I could sometimes show up to dinner without him and without inviting comment.”
Q. Re: Loans and little sister: If your father borrowed money and claimed it went to you, you need to check your credit reports (all three!!) and do it YESTERDAY. Put a fraud alert on your accounts, because presumably your father has had access to your information. This happened to me, not with a family member, but with a greedy tapeworm I allowed into my home—she “borrowed” my driver’s license and military ID, took her sister to a payday loan place, and forged my name as a CO-SIGNER on a loan. At any rate, your credit MUST be frozen for your protection. And you have a younger sister—what could he do to HER credit?? She will thank you, decades hence, if you help her to protect herself!
A: That’s a really important point, and one I hadn’t considered when I first answered the letter. If he’s willing to lie about you to his wife, he may very well have lied to you about the nature of the loan. Check your credit and make sure your father doesn’t have access to any of your important documents or ID in the future.
Q. Friend-turned-co-worker chaos: My very close friend of 12 years had been absolutely miserable for about four years over his low-paying, toxic job that was grossly overworking him. It was often the subject of long conversations where I tried to help him find solutions. So I thought I was helping when I put in a reference for him at my place of work, because I love my job. Well, he’s now making 50 percent more money than me, has a great title and his own office, and says the work is right up his alley … and he’s still miserable. It’s only been two weeks, but he is already complaining of a “poor work-life balance” and saying that his paycheck is not as big as he expected, not much different than before. (I feel like he’s focusing on only the negative stuff, jumping the gun on these grand proclamations, and not accounting for the newbie learning curve, and he is not communicating to his own team about his workload or how long things are actually taking him to do.)
I would just ignore it all except I have been driving him to and from work every day because he doesn’t yet have a car. So I get to listen to him doing nothing but complain about every single aspect of the job for two hours a day, from his disorganized team meetings to the nightmare in setting up his 401(k). This morning he was complaining about how he doesn’t understand why a work deadline was moved up. When I replied that I’m sure our supervisors have their own good reasons for changing deadlines, he threw his hands in the air and angrily/sarcastically snapped back, “SURE!” So I told him I was sick of his negativity and played a podcast for the rest of the drive. I’m just about ready to tell him to take the bus until he gets a car, but I don’t want this to ruin our friendship. However, this does seem to be a pattern in our relationship, where I make great efforts to support him but don’t get much appreciation or consideration in return. How do I extricate myself from this situation I cornered myself into?
A: Setting a boundary with your friend is not the same thing as “ruining your friendship.” It sounds like you’ve been aware of this bad habit of his for a while now but have never said anything until you (lightly!) snapped in the car, which means the two of you are long overdue for a little bit of conflict about this particular issue.
“I’m sorry I was so short with you the other day in the car. I realized in that moment that I’ve been keeping something to myself that I actually need to share with you. You may not have noticed it, but the degree to which you complain in our everyday conversation has become pretty constant and overwhelming, and it’s gone way beyond normal friendship venting. I can’t help you with that anymore. I need to be able to decompress during my commute because my own life is sometimes stressful too. From now on I won’t be available to drive you to or from work. I’ll need a little time before I’m ready to talk about this with you, but I hope we can get together for coffee in a couple of weeks and figure out how to reestablish our old closeness.”
Q. Re: Loans and little sister: This kind of thing has happened to me. I’ve been confronted by third parties about some transgression they’ve been told is true. I just get the truth out in the most compassionate way possible. In every case, the accuser believes me because they know me to be honest. I’d suspect that once Sister Loan gets that truth out, a lot of other questionable behavior from her father will start to come into focus—and that’s the only way to solve the problem.
A: I’m so sorry some version of this has happened to you too! At least you were able to discover that someone had used you to cover up for their own mistakes—it would be awful to never know why someone started drifting away. But I think the compassionate approach is wise here. Don’t yell or spit out the truth in a moment of frustration, because I think your parents will take any opportunity to grab at least the appearance of the moral high ground away from you. Just make it clear that it’s not true and that you’re sorry they’ve been having money problems, and don’t concern yourself with how they’re going to manage the aftermath. Not your circus, not your monkeys, as they say.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Q. Dead to me: My twin brother died in an accident last year. My sister raised money for a charity in his memory. He was pro-choice, so I was shocked to find that the charity is a “women’s center” that lures pregnant women in with the promise of free health consultations then tries to persuade them not to have abortions. I confronted her about this, and she refused to apologize, saying that it made her feel better to support a cause she values and that I should let her grieve in her own way. My inclination is never to speak to her again. Is this too harsh a response?
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