Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, team. Let’s get started.
Q. Rock: My husband runs his own business and works crazy hours. I understand his love of peace and quiet, but he has told me he is “done” with going out. He comes home, eats the dinner I make, and falls asleep in his armchair. Sometime around midnight, he comes to bed. He refuses to socialize at all: not with neighbors, at church, or with my family. If I go alone, I get questions about my husband, and when I get back, I get a guilt trip. (“You go out too much.”)
I am much more extroverted than my husband, but lately it feels like he is punishing me for it. He doesn’t even want to talk about my day: I will mention over dinner news that my co-worker got a puppy or a funny story my instructor told my class. His response is: “I don’t know them. Why should I care?” If I ask him to see a doctor or go see a counselor with me, he is dismissive. “Nothing is wrong, we are fine, you are too sensitive.” We are both in our early 30s. I want to enjoy life and my work and my marriage while we are both still active enough to enjoy it!
A: Let me describe your marriage as best as I can, based only on the information you’ve given me: Most days you make dinner for him, which he eats before passing out (it doesn’t sound like he thanks you or helps clear the dishes); several hours later, he climbs into bed and the next day it starts all over again. If you try to talk to him during dinner, he chastises you for noticing things that make other people happy. Small talk is forbidden, leaving the house without him is barely permissible only after he’s grilled you about it, and therapy is out of the question. Any attempt on your part to change this dynamic, however small or tentative, is immediately shut down. Your husband doesn’t want a partner, he wants a microwave—something to heat up his dinner for him and then stay silent, aside from beeping to alert him when his food is ready.
Maybe he is depressed, maybe he is overworked, maybe he is a curmudgeon, maybe it’s a combination of all three—all of it (from your point of view, at least) is rather beside the point, because he’s made it abundantly clear that this is the life he wants to have. I think if you want something else for your life—and you should—you should leave him, especially since you don’t have children together. I don’t know if you want to have kids someday, but I shudder to imagine children having to grow up with the kind of father who says, “Shut up, who cares” when someone says, “Oh, a friend of mine got a puppy today.”
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Q. Mom in the middle: Earlier this week, my 10-year-old daughter casually told me she is gay. I’m not exactly surprised, but I don’t think I was ready for her to come out in fourth grade. My reaction was fine: “Thank you for telling me. You know Daddy and I love you always.” She does not want to tell her dad! We are married and live in the same house. We have several gay friends and have always been very open with her about the different ways that people love other people. I don’t really understand why she is unwilling to tell him, but it doesn’t really matter if I understand it—it’s her information to share. The problem is twofold: I feel awful keeping this from my husband, and I really feel like I need some support of my own right now.
My daughter has told at least one friend in her class. I assume she will be sharing with more friends as she gets more comfortable. My husband will be very hurt if he is one of the last to know, which I’m afraid will damage their relationship far more than her sexual orientation ever could. What is my responsibility here? I want to help my daughter find her courage (her dad will not react negatively, although I can definitely see him questioning if she can really know she is gay at such a young age). I have a meeting with a representative from PFLAG next week, so I’m finding some support there. I feel a little lost right now, though. I really want to be able to share with the people who know and love my daughter, but I can’t do that without violating her trust.
A: I’m so glad that you’re meeting with someone from PFLAG soon. I hope that you can find more confidential support as you navigate how to best support your daughter right now—you deserve it. I think I have an idea why your daughter may feel a little reluctant to talk to her father right now! You have a sense that he might question whether she knows her own orientation, and I’m willing to bet that if you’ve picked up on that sense, she has too.
I understand that it may feel difficult not to talk about this with your husband right now, but bear in mind that at 10 years old, there’s no time-sensitive aspect of this conversation you need to have with him. She’s not about to start going on dates in the next year or so. (And I encourage you to cast your mind back to whenever your first crush was; it may be that you had a sense of what kind of person made you doodle hearts all over your notebook sometime around the age of 10. It’s not unusually precocious for a gay 10-year-old to know she only gets crushes on girls.) I think right now the best next move for you is to go back to your daughter and give her a slightly warmer reception than “Thank you for keeping me updated. I still love you.” I think sometimes people can assume the best, most-enlightened response to someone else’s coming-out, especially if that someone else is their child, is to act pretty neutral, which can actually feel more than a little deflating and dispiriting. Go back and tell her again how much you love her, how proud and grateful you are that she came out to you, and that you’re excited for her and she’s got a remarkable future ahead of her. (It’s fine, I think, to be a little cheesy, especially since she’s 10.) You can talk a little bit more about your relationships with your gay friends and what that’s meant to you in your own life. (You don’t have to list every lesbian you’ve ever met.) Ask her (gently) what she’s most nervous about when it comes to telling her father, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help make it easier for her. Tell her that you’re in her corner and you’ll do whatever you can for her. It may be that you two can figure out a strategy and a schedule for cluing in her dad soon; it may be that she needs a little more time.
My sense in your letter is that you feel a little bemused: We’re not homophobic, we have a couple of gay friends, we’ve mentioned a handful of times that “love is love,” maybe we were hoping a little bit that she’d end up being straight just because that’s a bit more convenient, but it’s fine that she’s gay, so why does she seem so sensitive about it? Those are all wonderful things, but it’s still possible for a kid to get a pretty clear message about how much homophobia still exists, such that “love is love” doesn’t immediately quell her anxiety. Hearing “I still love you” in response to “This is the truth about me” isn’t always useful—sometimes a kid hears that and thinks, “OK, they don’t technically love me less as a result of me being gay, but it’s not exactly welcome and exciting news. If I ever talk about someone I like, they might get a little stilted and awkward, and then I’ll feel guilty for making things more difficult, and we’ll just grow apart from there.” Talk to the PFLAG counselor, talk to your daughter, make sure you stress that this isn’t just something you’re willing to accept about her (but would have preferred she wait a few years) and that she’s got all your love and support.
Q. Sick of being a chauffeur: I have a friend who doesn’t have a car, so whenever we meet for lunch or coffee, she expects me to drive her somewhere afterward. How do I get out of this? I drive my kids around all day, and I don’t want to drive around anyone else with my limited time to myself. I’m happy to meet her by her work or by her apartment.
A: “Just so you know, I have somewhere to be right after [lunch/coffee/whatever], so I’m not available to give you a ride afterward. See you soon!”
If she’s clueless enough to ask follow-up questions, don’t make up a story or furnish excuses. Just stick with “Sorry, I’m not available to drive you anywhere.”
Q. Support or dependency? My girlfriend deals with depression, anxiety, and C-PTSD. She is in therapy and on medication, and she works extremely hard to manage her symptoms while communicating clearly with me about what she is feeling and what she needs. I love her and I want to support her as best as I can. Nevertheless, I get frustrated with what feels to me like an unhealthy dependency. She says things like she needs to spend enough alone time with me or she will become unstable. If we have to change plans at the last minute, or if I say I need a night to myself, she will often end up having a panic attack because of it, and I will find myself texting with her or calling her to help her manage it instead of having my time alone or with friends. If I were to just ignore her texts or calls, I would feel like a selfish jerk because I’m withholding the thing she needs to be stable. Being her full-time support feels unsustainable to me, but I know she’s working as hard as she can already.
I am struggling with figuring out whether I’m being selfish and unsupportive. Where is the line between support and dependency? How do I tell whether I am setting a healthy boundary or being a bad partner?
A: I think part of what’s hard about this situation is that it doesn’t actually have to be one or the other. Your girlfriend may be asking for reasonable things, and you may also be trying to set reasonable boundaries, and they may simply be mutually incompatible. She doesn’t have to be wrong for this not to be working for you. That’s difficult, because it might feel to you like you don’t have the right to end a relationship with someone who struggles with various mental health issues unless it’s a matter of your own mental health being at stake. But she doesn’t need to be unhealthily co-dependent in order for you to be able to say, “This doesn’t work for me.”
There may very well be people who could handle being in a relationship with a partner where they rarely change plans at the last minute and/or feel comfortable saying, “If you feel a panic attack coming on and I can’t be there to help you with it, let’s come up with a safety plan so you have other options that might include medication, calling your therapist, various self-soothing techniques, etc.” The part that does feel like it’s veering into unhealthy territory is where your girlfriend apparently has panic attacks if you’re not there to spend the night with her. It’s one thing to say, “My partner helps contribute to my sense of stability, and it’s important to me that we spend time together”—I think most happily partnered people would share some version of that sentiment—but you just can’t be the only thing keeping her going. So without making judgments about how hard she’s already trying, or trying to downplay your own needs because she’s often in crisis, you have the right (frankly, you owe it to yourself!) to say, “The way things are going aren’t working for me. It’s not sustainable. I need to be able to have the occasional night to myself where I know you have other options for counseling and support. Let’s talk about what a support plan might look like so that you have other people you can reach out to if you need help while I’m unavailable.”
And it’s important for you, I think, to figure out at what point you might consider ending the relationship if things don’t improve. I’m already worried that you view alone time as “withholding the thing she needs to be stable.” Constant, round-the-clock attention from a single person is not what she needs to be stable; she needs therapeutic and medical help, emotional support, a variety of coping strategies, possibly medication, and a calm, safe place to ride out her panic attacks (which can be wildly distressing but do not put her in immediate physical danger). She can get all of those things from a number of different people; I don’t want to undervalue the importance of your connection, but doctors do not prescribe boyfriends for panic attacks, nor do therapists recommend them for the same. If you were to end your relationship tomorrow, your girlfriend may very well be quite unhappy and go through a difficult time, but she would not be without recourse.
Q. Ace gone wild: I’m a 27-year-old bi trans woman in a monogamous long-term relationship with another woman. We have our ups and downs, but generally I consider myself lucky to have found a partner who is supportive, kind, and loving. I also, until very recently, identified as asexual. The “until very recently” is where things get complicated. My partner and I have a very tame sex life that mostly consists of vibrators for her and back rubs for me. A couple weeks ago, however, I had a spontaneous threesome with a friend and his partner, and Prudie, I loved it! I haven’t had sex like that in years and didn’t think I was even capable of enjoying it that much. My partner was obviously upset at the betrayal and I don’t blame her at all; we recommitted to monogamy and I have started seeing a therapist to try to get at the root of why I had sex with the first person who asked.
My problem is this—I feel suddenly awakened to the possibility of enjoying the kind of sex my partner is unwilling to have. I’m not sure if it’s the multiple-people aspect, the specific things that I did with this couple, or simply the fact that someone finally didn’t view my genitals as something to be ignored or shamed (an attitude I have often participated in and encouraged), but I am craving more. I feel like I have had versions of this conversation with my partner before and that having the same conversation again will lead to her annoyance or, worse, acquiescence just for the sake of making me happy so I don’t cheat again (which I don’t plan to do, even though part of me really wants to). Do I need to try again? Should I wait for these feelings to pass and try to go back to identifying as ace? I’m totally lost here.
A: There is, obviously, a lot here, but I want to start with one of your more abstract questions: “Should I wait for these feelings to pass and try to go back to identifying as ace?” I don’t think there’s much value in trying to identify as something against your inclinations. Labels like asexual should serve the people who use them, not the other way around. Ask yourself, “When I think of using the word asexual to describe myself right now, does it accurately describe my desires? My impulses? My fears? My hopes? Would it help me communicate something about my inner experience to other people who might share that experience? Would it make it easier for me to ask for the things I want from a partner or a date? Does it fill me with hope and enthusiasm about the future?” I wonder if you feel like it’s your responsibility to “go back to” identifying as asexual as quickly as possible because asexuality is often dismissed, misunderstood, and slighted, and because asexual people are sometimes condescendingly asked if they’re sure they’re not just afraid of sex, or traumatized, or don’t really know their own bodies. That bad behavior on the part of other people is not your responsibility to fix, and you wouldn’t be playing into stereotypes if you decided to stop right now and reevaluate your own relationship to sex and desire.
Right now, in addition to figuring out how and whether you can repair trust with your partner, you have the opportunity to examine something new, surprising, and powerful that you’re experiencing. I think you should not rush to dismiss it! You say that you loved it, that you had not thought yourself capable of that kind of pleasure, that you feel suddenly awakened—that’s powerful, heady stuff. I know that your partner is otherwise loving and supportive and that you fear losing her if you speak more honestly with her about the kind of sex that you want to have (especially because it sounds like she’s totally unwilling to have that kind at all). I’m not saying that it was totally fine for you to cheat on her because you may have been repressing an important part of your sexuality, but it does sound like you’ve been trying to untangle a pretty complicated knot of body-image issues, what you feel like you’re “allowed” to ask for from a partner, and your sense of worth as a sexual being. I think these are feelings that you need to pay attention to and ask a lot of questions about, not sit and hope they fade away.
Q. Co-worker dilemma: I work on a small team that’s part of a larger organization. I’m in my early-30s, while Karen, a teammate I work closely with, is in her early-20s. She has some annoying tendencies that I’ve chalked up to age difference in the past, but I’ve also had to field complaints from co-workers on other teams that she’s difficult to work with (mainly slow to respond or completely unresponsive).
Our boss is a really sweet man who takes care of us and is generally a great leader. He adores Karen. I found out recently that while she says she leaves early three to four times a week to go to college classes (she’s finishing her degree while working), she hasn’t actually been attending after failing out. She still talks about school and is carrying on the charade. I know because she told someone who told someone … and you know the rest. I’m torn about whether to approach the boss about this. On one hand, it’s none of my business. Maybe I’m annoyed purely because she already annoys me. But on the other hand, it feels like she’s taking advantage of a very good boss, company, and job. I don’t want her to feel embarrassed, but it just doesn’t feel right.
A: This is one of those situations that feels like it’s something you have to address, but you actually don’t. If your co-workers are complaining to you about how she gets her work done, you should encourage them to speak to Karen directly about it. If that doesn’t help, they should speak to the boss so he has a sense of how much her behavior is affecting other people’s ability to get their work done. It’s not clear to me that her non-responsiveness has actually affected your own work schedule or if you just find her generally annoying and hear a lot about how it’s affected other people in the office. If you’re getting your own work done on schedule, and you don’t have the authority to offer a performance review to Karen, go ahead and clock out on time at the end of the day and enjoy your evening.
It may be that Karen is operating a low-level educational scam and bragging about it to other people in the office. If so, she is a very bad scammer and will almost certainly be found out sooner rather than later. It’s also possible that this third- or fourthhand intel you’ve received is not strictly accurate. Since you have no way of confirming it, and since it’s not affecting your own work, I think you have a real opportunity here to get less involved and spend your time thinking about things that actually interest you.
Q. Re: Rock: Is it possible for you to help your husband with his business? This might take some of his professional pressure off him, give him more time to socialize, and give you more time with him.
A: I think a guy who responds to anecdotes about puppies or “Something sort of funny happened in yoga class” with “I don’t know these people, I don’t care, stop going out on the weekends” needs less support, not more. I could not in good conscience encourage this letter writer to try to take on more of the work of keeping this marriage going—it already sounds like she’s carrying the marriage strapped to her back up a steep hill by herself.
Q. Coming out as straight: I’m a mid-40s woman who met my wife two decades ago, when I was just out of high school. We had a lot of hot lesbo sex for the first 10 years, and I had lot of hot lesbo crushes on various chicks during that time. Then we had twins, which was followed by a decade of classic LBD celibacy. But when my libido woke back up, about eight years ago … it was completely hetero. I got a hall pass from the wife (grudgingly) and have been exploring my new desires for almost a decade now. There’s no getting around it: I’m not even slightly bi. The sex has clicked for me on a visceral level in a way that I never remember girl-sex doing, and after a few years of some varsity slutting around, I now have a steady boyfriend on the side. I had kind of hoped this was going to be “just a phase,” but clearly it isn’t.
I went through the coming-out process once when I was 19, and it was pretty easy. But this one feels so much harder, and when I Google to find my tribe (“mixed-orientation marriages where one person comes out as straight”), there’s nothing there. I feel like if I had a friend in a straight marriage who came out to themselves late in life as gay, I would encourage them to own it proudly to their family, to their friends, to the world. For some reason, this photo-negative coming out feels too painful to handle. The lack of authenticity in my life is eating me alive, but I don’t even know where to start. My teenage kids knows something’s up, but I feel really strongly that having good boundaries and not oversharing is part of being a good parent and a good adult. Prudence. I feel like a freak, and I can’t even find other freaks like me on the interwebs to bounce this off. I want to stay married, and my wife and I have brokered an uneasy DADT détente regarding my new orientation and life. So now I feel stuck in how to handle this coming-out process. Do I tell my kids? My family? My friends? My co-workers? I hate this closet, but I don’t know how to get out of it.
A: If nothing else, I really hope you stop describing the early days of your marriage of “hot lesbo sex”—given the context you’re in now, it sounds really flippant and dismissive. You say that you and your wife have brokered an “uneasy don’t ask, don’t tell” détente (and I’d just like to point out that neither DADT nor détente are famously successful policies) but that you want to start coming out as a straight woman with a boyfriend. How is that going to affect the already-precarious agreement the two of you have? I’m having a hard time imagining a future for this marriage. You say that you want to stay married, but in what sense? You don’t even include the halfhearted “My partner is great, but … “ that’s a staple of advice-column letters. Your wife clearly isn’t happy with the way things are, and the changes you’re proposing (continuing to have a boyfriend, never having sex with her again, starting to bring your boyfriend around to social gatherings or introducing him to the kids) sound pretty significant. I’m not sure why you two aren’t talking about divorce.
I know that dealing with a sexless marriage can be incredibly painful and difficult, and I know that coming to a new understanding of one’s identity and sexuality in the middle of a marriage can be overwhelming. I don’t in any way mean to downplay or discount that. And I’m sorry that some light Googling didn’t result in an instant community of other people making the same choices as you, but I’m concerned about the tone of your letter—the implication is that coming out as gay was easier for you because it’s easier to be a gay person and that maybe it’s those lesbians who are secretly the intolerant ones because no one’s throwing you a pride parade for realizing that you don’t want to have sex with your wife anymore. Tell your wife that you want to start introducing your boyfriend to the kids and your co-workers and the rest of your family; ask her if she can imagine staying married to you if you never have sex again and have an important, prominent role for your boyfriend in your family circles. My guess is that you two will have to find a way to divorce as amicably as possible and develop a civil co-parenting relationship, but you both deserve better than the marriage you’re currently contemplating.
From Care and Feeding
“What is the point of chores? Is it to teach the kids that they are part of a family and that being a member of a household carries with it certain responsibilities? Or is it to ease the burden on the parents?”
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