Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Gifts for girlfriend’s family: I have been with my girlfriend for five months. After I got a big raise at work, I decided to splurge and upgrade my TV and computer. I knew my girlfriend was raised by a single mom, “DeeDee,” and that money was tight with the two younger brothers. I offered them my 4-year-old computer and TV. At first, my girlfriend’s mom was overjoyed. We drove down and set everything up for the kids. A week later, DeeDee texted me that her boys had destroyed both the TV and the computer and that it was my job to replace them. I told her no. She left a profanity-filled voice message. When I went to talk to my girlfriend, she came down on her mom’s side. It was an “accident,” and it wasn’t like I couldn’t afford to replace them. We fought. My girlfriend started to cry and I apologized to make her stop, but I am still pissed. I am questioning my relationship with her now. I do love her, but this entire situation has put things in a different light. We are each other’s first serious relationship. What do I need to do?
A: Talk to your girlfriend again! Tell her that while you were sorry to see her cry, you didn’t apologize because you regretted saying no to her mother—you apologized because you were uncomfortable and you didn’t know how to handle it. Make it clear that while you’re not going to go out of your way to antagonize her mother, you stand by your decision not to replace the items her younger brothers destroyed. I think it’s fine that this has you reevaluating how you see your girlfriend—you two have only been together for five months, you both sound relatively young, and it’s a pretty inappropriate stunt for her mother to have pulled.
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Q. How do I leave my “monogamish” marriage? I have been with my husband for 13 years, and for the past four, we’ve had a mutually agreed-upon “monogamish” arrangement. We have various terms—including a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—the most important one being not to do anything that would jeopardize our relationship (falling in love with someone else, pregnancy, unprotected sex). The original thought was that our partnership was strong enough that we could allow each other to have a little bit of the fun and excitement that come from something new and different and not feel threatened.
Well, I screwed it up. About eight months ago, I started an affair with a casual friend who is in my husband’s social circle but lives on the other side of the country. He also had a partner at the time, but they broke up shortly after for unrelated reasons. Feelings grew quickly; we started texting throughout the day and planning trips to see each other about once a month. At the beginning, I thought maybe the intensity of my feelings could just be attributed to the newness, and I thought they would subside. But at this point, they’ve only grown. We’ve talked about making plans to be together, and he is looking to relocate to be near me (among other reasons).
There are no huge problems with my marriage, but I have changed a lot since I met my husband as a 19-year-old, and I would not say that we’re the most compatible in terms of interests, lifestyle, and personality. If I’m being honest, though, I don’t think I would be compelled to leave if it were not for this other man. At this point, I think it would be very hard to stay with my husband when I feel that I would be happier in the other relationship. I’ve thought about ending our marriage. I know my husband will be devastated, and he has also had some self-esteem issues lately that I’m sure this would amplify. He is a great partner and has done nothing wrong. I know that there’s no way of getting out of this easily, but is there any least-painful way of doing it?
While my initial thought was to be honest, from what I’ve read and heard from others, being left for someone else (particularly someone he knows) seems especially painful, and I really want to spare him that. I’ve even felt myself wanting to sabotage our relationship so he can start to be angry with me and want out, and then maybe it would hurt less for him and be less of a surprise when it ends. This is 100 percent my fault and I feel horrible about what I’m doing, but I’m not sure how to fix it.
A: I don’t know if your marriage will survive this, but one thing is super clear: You need to abandon your previous strategy of “I’m sure an open relationship will be fine for us, as long as we never talk about it after a single, initial limit-establishing conversation.” DADT is a really bad policy. It is a famously bad policy! I do not recommend it for anyone! As a general rule, I don’t think anyone should apply military policy—especially policy the military itself has since abandoned!—to their marriages.
Let me hasten to assure you that you are not the first person to think, “Maybe I can solve my problems by acting like a jerk until my partner decides to stop loving me, so that they want to break up and I can be graciously dumped.” This is an even worse strategy than DADT. It never works. It’s passive, cruel, and open-ended, and it’s rooted in a profound contempt for your partner’s feelings. How long do you think it will take you to actively turn your husband against you? What if it takes five years? Ten? How on Earth can you think it would be easier to slowly destroy the love he has for you than to simply be honest and tell him you want a divorce?
Talk to your husband. Tell him you’ve developed strong feelings for someone else, that you’re at the stage of making plans together, that you feel like you’ve grown apart, and that you think you’d be happier with another man. Please don’t be so cruel as to string him along by staying with him not because you’re committed to your partnership but because you want a really solid exit strategy in place first. Don’t use him for comfort and stability when you don’t actually feel invested in him as a partner. Don’t infantilize him by saying his self-esteem is too low for you to admit you violated the terms of your agreement. Be honest. Allow him his hurt and anger. Consider spending some time with a therapist figuring out how you can avoid repeating this pattern in the future. How can you make sure that you won’t keep your doubts or uncertainties to yourself in your next relationship? How can you build a foundation where you bring up questions or concerns or fears with your partner as they arise, rather than sitting on them and waiting until you’ve reached the breaking point?
Q. No, I’m not an anti-vaxxer: My husband and I are parents to two great kids—a 2½-year-old son and an almost–4-month-old daughter. We are lucky to have my parents nearby; they live about three hours away but have purchased a home in our neighborhood and come up to see us and the kids every weekend. We all get along great for the most part.
The problem is my mom. She is a fun, gregarious person but is also terribly immature and petty (to the point of almost being cruel) when she doesn’t get her way. Our daughter caught a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) when she was 6 weeks old and ended up in the NICU for four days. When my parents found out she was sick, they immediately dropped everything and drove up here to be with our son so my husband and I could stay in the hospital with our daughter. After she was discharged, our daughter remained on oxygen for two more weeks. It was a stressful time for all of us, but my mom was especially affected by it. It was obvious that our daughter picked up the infection from our son, who goes to day care three half-days a week. Once we returned home, we pulled my son out of day care for one month to give our house a break from germs.
Well, my son has restarted his day care program (which he loves and which we think is so good for him) and my mother is livid. She won’t say anything to me in front of my dad or husband, but when we’re alone together, she tells me how selfish I am for sending my son to day care after what happened to my daughter and how I’m just as bad as those moms who don’t vaccinate their kids and how I care more about myself than my children. I know that these comments aren’t true, but they are extremely hurtful. My mother’s whole life was devoted to raising her kids. I own my own business and am doing my best to balance work and being a good mom. She doesn’t understand why I want to work and thinks that I, too, should devote my whole life to raising my children.
When she makes these hurtful comments, I usually say, “I understand, thank you for letting me know,” which inexplicably causes her to burst into tears for sometimes hours. It’s getting to the point where I am afraid of being around her for fear of the hurtful things she is going to say to me and also of her reaction when I try to respond in a reasonable manner. I don’t want to ruin our fun family weekends, but I also don’t want to be bullied by my mom as a grown adult! How do I communicate that she is being mean without damaging our relationship?
A: So, the usual caveat applies here that I am not even a little bit a doctor, but according to the CDC, “virtually all children get an RSV infection by the time they are two years old.” It’s awful that your daughter was one of the few whose infection grew complicated, and I’m so glad you were able to get her treated and back home, but I don’t think that you could have prevented her picking it up even if you’d kept your son at home in a bubble instead of sending him to day care. Clearly, you’re already aware that day care falls in the same category as “going to work” or “leaving the house” in terms of what most people consider an acceptable risk, but I think it’s worth reaffirming that what you’re doing is safe.
It’s great that you’ve already found a neutral rebuff to her outrageous comments about your parenting, but I’m concerned that she apparently spends hours afterward moping around your house sobbing. You say you don’t want to “ruin your fun family weekends,” but I’m concerned your mother has managed to warp your idea of “fun” to include “my mother gets to say horrible shit to me whenever she feels like it, I find a way to absorb/ignore/deflect it, and then we all paste on happy faces.” I get that your daughter’s hospitalization was scary for all of you, and I have no doubt that your mother loves her and was frightened for her safety. But that doesn’t give her carte blanche to say wild, cruel things to you whenever she feels like it and then retreat into tears when you don’t immediately offer yourself up in sacrifice. If you haven’t already told your husband about what your mom says to you when you’re alone, please do—you deserve his support and backup in this.
Now for the hard part. You’re going to have to start to follow through when you set these conversational limits with your mother. She’s going to cry, she’ll try to manipulate you, she’ll act like you’re stabbing her in the heart—all of this is totally textbook, and it’s totally fine. It won’t feel fine, of course, but you’re not actually hurting her in any way. Your child is not in any real danger. This crisis is totally manufactured, and it can stop as soon as your mom decides to give it up. I think you should tell your mother—with your husband present, so she can’t keep her nasty behavior a secret from him—that you want her to be able to spend time with you and the kids but she needs to stop questioning your decision to send your son to day care and calling you a bad mother: “The next time you do it, I’m going to cut our visit short; if you can’t stop after that, we’re not going to make time to see you. As soon as you’re willing to let this go, I would absolutely love to get together. But the choice is yours.” Let go of the fear of “damaging” your relationship with your mother. Your relationship with your mother is already incredibly damaged, but because you’re the one absorbing all the pain (and that’s been framed as normal within your family), you think it’s not that bad. But it really, really is that bad!
Q. Wary heart, suspicious mind: About a year ago, I was assaulted in my neighborhood. A man grabbed my butt and then sprinted away. I didn’t see his face, but as he ran away, I thought that he looked like a guy I know named Mark. Mark and I are in the same professional community, with a good bit of overlap. We have even worked at the same organization, though not at the same time. Before the assault, I’d always gotten a bad vibe from Mark, based on some pushy behaviors on social media (repeated friend requests despite being denied, excessive invitations, etc.). Since the assault, I’ve learned that Mark actually lives in my neighborhood and is a runner. Also, I’ve learned that multiple women were assaulted in my neighborhood in the same way. As far as I can tell, I was the last one. I can’t help wondering if that is because Mark recognized me after the assault and got too scared to continue.
The time to report to the police has long since passed (and, as I’m sure you understand, there were a variety of reasons that I didn’t want to do that anyway). So my question is: Given my lack of proof, how icy am I allowed to be to Mark now? I don’t want to be cruel if it wasn’t him, but I don’t want to be kind if it was. We interact about once a month or less. Can I ignore him (as I have been doing) for the foreseeable future, or do I need to be cordial for the sake of the professional community and on the off-chance that it wasn’t him? Most importantly, am I putting other women in our professional community at risk if I keep silent?
A: You don’t have to believe that Mark was the man who assaulted you in order to dislike him. It’s totally fine to acknowledge the following: You don’t like the way he’s responded to you setting limits in the past, the two of you don’t work together, and you have no interest in interacting with him. You don’t need more justification than that! Go ahead and ignore someone you don’t like and don’t work with—that’s totally reasonable and within your purview. If you occasionally have to exchange a professional greeting with him because it’s completely unavoidable, that’s fine, but don’t give him any more thought than that.
You’re certainly not putting anyone at risk right now—you don’t know for sure who grabbed you, and you’re not responsible for the behavior of a strange man who gropes joggers. When it comes to working through your lingering feelings about the assault, I hope you’re able to talk often to your friends (and as always, I’ll put in a plug for a therapist if your time and budget permit) outside of work so you have an outlet where you don’t have to maintain a professional demeanor.
Q. Worried and witchy: I’m a Wiccan who lives in a small, predominantly Christian town. Naturally, I’m very private about my beliefs. In fact, the only time I’m ever really open in public about them is during the summer solstice, when my tiny coven and I dress up in full black dresses and pointed hats and drive three hours to a renaissance fair. The other day at work, one of my co-workers asked me if I had ever been to the fair before. I said yes and told her it was a good fair and was a lot of fun if she was into that sort of thing. After talking about it for a minute, she said, “That does sound fun! You should invite me next time you go!”
I was scared speechless. This woman is a very vocal Southern Baptist who frequently wears large cross necklaces and blasts Christian rock in our shared office. I get the feeling that if she ever found out I am a witch, she’d call for my public stoning or, worse, try to get me fired. How do I tell her she’s not invited without being rude, or telling her anything about my beliefs? We share an office, so avoiding her is out of the question.
A: I don’t think you need to worry about telling her she’s not invited; at least right now that definitely falls under the category of “We should grab lunch sometime”: a statement of generalized goodwill that doesn’t necessarily carry any follow-through with it. Just go and don’t invite her, then don’t mention the fair at work again. And keep her settings on social media (I hope you’re not social media friends with any of your co-workers, but if it’s too late for that, you can at least minimize some of the damage) such that she can’t see pictures of where you’ve been, in case you were planning on uploading a picture or two of the fair. If she asks again, keep your answers vague (“I’m not sure if I’m going this year, I have a busier schedule than usual”) and then tell her you have to get back to work. Be noncommittal, don’t agree with her when she says, “You should invite me to ____,” and when all else fails, reorient the conversation to something work-related. You do not have to have a big conversation with her about this.
Also, in the future, if you don’t want co-workers to invite themselves along to your social gatherings, offer a more limited and restrained description. That’s not to say it’s your fault she asked you to include her, merely that it’ll be part of a more effective strategy at keeping co-workers in their place.
Q. Would you jump in her grave as quickly? I’m a male sub-editor for a hobbyist magazine serving a male-dominated fandom. I found out recently that my editor in chief, a rare example of a woman who’s made it in the industry despite the entrenched boy’s-club culture, will soon resign due to a sustained campaign of sexist harassment and abuse by our employer.
The entire editorial team has witnessed this abuse and supported our editor in chief at every turn, up to and including offering to strike, quit, do a sit-in at our offices, etc. Our company is tiny, with no HR department, and our employer runs it pretty much as a dictatorship, so those were the only things we could think of to do. She turned down all the offers, not wanting any of us to risk our jobs when we’re generally much earlier in our careers than she is. Now that she’s leaving for a better job, she’s made it clear she doesn’t expect anyone to walk out with her or anything.
However, I’m not sure what to do if, as seems likely, I am offered her job once she leaves, as the most senior of the remaining editors. Though she’s insisted she doesn’t expect anything from us, I feel like I would be profiting from her mistreatment by taking a job that’s only available because our employer drove her out of it. It feels especially unjust since I know for a fact I won’t get an iota of the abuse she’s received, just because I’m a man. However, it would be a big step up for me careerwise and almost certainly a significant rise in pay, maybe enough to get me off the poverty line. Would it be unethical to accept the job offer, if it comes? I feel like a total scab.
A: Not everyone has the luxury of choosing what kind of boss they work for, but I’d certainly encourage you to explore your other options. How does it feel to envision your career in the long run at a magazine with a sexist, abusive boss? Would you feel good about encouraging other people, especially women, to come work for you? Do you want to work more closely with a man who runs your office like a dictatorship and has unchecked power over his employees? Now seems like a great time to look for other magazines (either in that particular fandom or elsewhere) or organizations with an HR department, a slightly less male-dominated masthead, and a less unhinged boss.
Q. Messy fiancée: My girlfriend—and soon-to-be fiancée—and I are in lockstep emotionally in all the important ways. In fully recognizing that I have my own habits that drive her similarly bonkers, there are still things she continues to do that we’ve had multiple conversations about—habits that make me lose my damn mind (perhaps irrationally, but they’re still important to me). She consistently leaves her trash in my car, a place that is a temple of cleanliness for me; places her grimy shoes on the dashboard, leaving dirt and crud all over them; and fills up my glove compartment with what can only be described as a carton of napkins. (I’ve tried a compromise with packets of tissues but this apparently is an insufficient solution.)
Furthermore, in the house, she is often aloof and doesn’t listen to the needs I have for maintaining cleanliness and homeostasis. (Think putting paper towels down when cutting onions or meal-prepping, washing fruits and vegetables before we consume them.) The aloofness comes when she doesn’t hear me when I ask simple things, such as bringing me random household items that she happened to be next to at the moment. (I’d like to supplement this statement that 99 percent of the time I will take it upon myself to commit acts of kindness and service to her at home and ensure her peace of mind.) How can I reach her and let her know that I’m willing to make steps to meet her in the middle, but that her habits, while they don’t make me respect her any less—I know she’s the one I’m destined to spend my life with—perhaps make me feel like she disrespects me?
A: So the house stuff is a little trickier, but I think the car stuff you can set some pretty clear limits on—if she wants to ride with you, she needs to keep her feet off the dashboard and take her trash with her when she gets out. If not, she doesn’t ride in the car! I feel like I have been a little harsh and quick to deliver ultimatums today, so I want to stress that this message doesn’t have to be delivered with all the solemnity and condemnation of an ex cathedra statement. You can just say, “We’ve talked about this a lot, and nothing’s changed, so I’ve decided to do something a little different. It’s really important to me that I keep my car clean, and it’s felt frustrating to ask you repeatedly to observe a few simple rules and be disregarded. Let me know if you’re willing to ride with me without putting your feet up and taking your trash with you when we step out. If not, let’s arrange to drive [wherever] separately.” It’s not an attempt to punish her or force her to change. It’s just acknowledging reality and saying, “Look, this is what I need. You don’t have to care about car cleanliness as much as I do, but it’s important to me.”
As for the house stuff, there’s a wide range of habits you describe, some of which feel more serious than others. (Wash fruits and vegetables! Do not eat unwashed fruits and vegetables!) You can definitely have a sit-down chat with her about that where you explain that it all adds up in a way that makes you feel ignored and disrespected, and that you want her to know that it’s not just about being a stickler or fussy: “I know you care about me, and I think if you realized just how much it all adds up and hurts me, you’d assign a different weight to little things like using a cutting board or wiping down the countertops.”
Q. The working dead: I’ve recently been fortunate enough to leave a toxic workplace but have fallen right into another one. Despite being diligent on the interview and asking all the questions about work-life balance and the type of work I would be doing, I’m actually working myself into the ground and not doing the work I even want to do. I’m exhausted and frustrated. I have a really hard time visualizing a positive future career for myself. I’ve been working with a therapist, but more frequently I’m just worried I’ll never have a job I like and I’ll never be happy at work. I feel like I need to take some time off to recharge and feel like a human again. Maybe I’m being too picky and just need to settle for the crap job.
I’m about to turn 30 and I still don’t feel like I have a direction in life. My friends have settled into careers and seem positive about what they’re doing. Some friends just have jobs and pursue their passions outside of work. I feel like I’m doing neither. How can I gain clarity about my future path?
A: Right now, I think a useful and achievable goal for you is to do the absolute bare minimum at your job, to whatever extent that’s possible. (That means going home at quitting time, even if someone else is trying to make unreasonable demands because they’re having an emergency, not engaging with over-the-top attempts to rope you into workplace politics, etc.) If that’s not possible, and you think “taking some time off to recharge” is possible without breaking the bank—you don’t mention that this would be financially impossible for you, so I’m assuming you have at least some savings that could keep you going—I think you should do it.
I don’t think it’s “too picky” to want to have a job that doesn’t suck all the energy from your body. That doesn’t mean I can guarantee your next job is going to be at a calm workplace where everyone is treated with respect, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable desire! Spend some of your time off talking to your friends who have either relatively sane employers and/or an enviable sense of detachment about their day jobs. (Are any of them hiring?) “Not having direction” is a really different problem from “my workplace is actively sucking the life and sanity out of me,” and the latter is much more urgent than the former. You might be able to give that first question a little more thought once you’re not fighting a daily battle every time you walk into work.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
“Recently, my daughter “Sarah” and her best friend, “Lauren,” were playing outside. Lauren’s mom, “Kerry,” and I have become good friends, so she was over as well. Kerry is white, and Lauren’s father is black. While the girls were playing together and I was inside, Sarah apparently cracked her jump rope at Lauren and called her “my ——.” Kerry flew into a fury. She took Sarah’s jump rope, loomed over her, and read her the riot act. She didn’t scream or even touch Sarah, but she called Sarah ‘rotten child.’ Sarah has been traumatized by what could have been a teaching moment. I know Kerry now sees my family as a pack of racists. She says Lauren doesn’t want to play with Sarah anymore, but I think this is a decision Kerry and her husband made. I’m furious about the way Kerry reacted, even though I get why she was angry. I don’t know how to make my daughter feel better. My husband denies it, but I’m certain Sarah heard those things from him or one of his friends. What should I do?”
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