Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Doggie food: What can I do to get my husband to stop using the family flatware on the dog’s food? Our dog eats food that has to be heated in the microwave and sometimes chopped up. I have begged my husband to use plastic utensils, but he still uses the same utensils with which our family eats. It makes me nauseous. The thought of using a knife that was used on dog food makes me want to throw up.
For what it’s worth, commercials that show cat food being stirred and plopped also make me feel sick. I have always had what can be described as a weak stomach. I have talked to him about this repeatedly, but he is apparently ignoring this simple request. When asked about it, he says it’s no big deal and that the family silverware is more convenient. How can I get him to understand that he’s making me sick?
A: The simplest solution might be to take over preparing the dog’s food yourself, but it may be that your work schedule prevents you from doing it. You could also, if you had to, pick up some relatively inexpensive flatware just for you that you keep in a separate drawer in the kitchen and know will never be used to prepare dog food.
But it’s baffling to me that your husband has ignored a very simple request you’ve had to repeat over and over. I’d ask him for an explanation: “I’ve asked you not to use the silverware we use to eat to prepare the dog’s food a number of times. I’m not asking you to feel the same way about it, I’m just telling you that it’s unpleasant for me and makes eating difficult. It would require almost no effort for you to use something else to feed the dog, so I’m confused as to why you continue to do something that you know makes me sick and anxious. Can you explain why this is important to you?”
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Q. Ex is back: Several years ago, my long-term boyfriend confessed that he had cheated on me with his female friend (let’s call her Jane) and did not feel like he could continue our relationship. I was shocked—he had been looking at engagement rings, and I was expecting him to propose. Our breakup hit me really hard and I completely lost my self-confidence. It didn’t help that he said some really demoralizing things during our breakup that stayed with me for a long time afterward, like that he thought I was too vanilla in bed for him (and had felt that way for a while) and that he looked ahead to our future together and found it to be too predictable and boring. It took me years to get back to feeling like myself and to feeling confident enough to open myself up again. In the years since, I haven’t seen or spoken to my ex.
He never gave me a clear explanation as to why he cheated, though I’ve had lots of time to speculate. I think he could see the path we were heading down and wanted something different, and rather than express that to me, he turned to someone else for comfort. Or maybe he just wanted to blow everything up. Who knows. I asked him at the time if he wanted to be with Jane; he said no, that they’d only slept together once, and that he had no intention of starting a relationship with her.
I am now engaged to a wonderful man. The intervening years were sometimes difficult, but I am in a much better place, and I recognize that it all worked out for the best. My ex recently emailed me out of the blue to say that he isn’t happy and wants to see me. My first instinct was to ignore the message. But then I got curious and Googled him. I wasn’t expecting to find much (he isn’t active on social media) but one of the first-page results indicated that he and Jane own a house together and that they might be married. It’s been long enough that I don’t particularly care that they got together. But it hurts a little that he felt like it was a good idea under the circumstances to reach out to me. With me, he got to a point where he wasn’t happy and reached out to someone else. The way this looks now, he is unhappy with someone else and is reaching out to me. The fact that that person is Jane just makes it worse. Does he think I’d help him do to someone else what he did to me?
Now I’m torn. I could ignore this and never respond. Or I could reply and call him out on this. That would require that I out myself a little—all of this information is public, but I did have to do a smidge of cyberstalking to get it. What do you think? Is calling him out on this BS and telling him to go kick rocks worth it? Or should I just count my good fortune that he’s not my problem anymore and forget about it?
A: I hope you tell your fiancé about this, not because I think he needs to know, but because I think you deserve support in figuring out whether you want to respond. If you don’t want to talk to him about it, I hope you have a close friend or two you can speak to instead. This was a significant relationship and the aftereffects of your ex’s betrayal lingered on for years—it’s understandable that you feel shaken and uncertain about how to proceed.
I do think there might be some value in responding, if only to tell him (politely) that you don’t think you’d get anything out of talking to him. You wouldn’t have to go into detail about what you now know about his relationship with Jane; you have plenty of excellent reasons to not consider him the kind of ex you can have a friendly catch-up over lunch with. If it were me, I’d probably split the difference between “saying nothing” and “writing a five-page letter detailing everything he ever did wrong” and say something like “I’m not interested in helping you deal with your unhappiness. Please don’t contact me again.” Not as satisfying as reading him the Riot Act, maybe, but it’s still clear and sufficiently dismissive.
Q. Not a mind reader: I’m a 26-year-old nonbinary AMAB person, and I’m usually attracted to guys. I’ve known Alex (he’s 19) for about a month now: We’re both part of a university hobby group, a subsection of which went on a trip away for two weeks during vacation. We’d never spoken before the trip but ended up spending most of our time together, as part of a larger group or often just the two of us. I’m quite a campy and flirty individual whereas he’s quite shy and reserved, but he seemed to open up with me in a way I don’t see with other people. Because I’d been feeling chemistry between us, I asked him if I could “get to know him better” after we’d been back a few days, while not knowing what his sexuality is. He said yes, and we ended up, normally enough for a first date, going to a movie, then dinner. So far so good.
So how, Prudie, does this lead me to seek your advice? He mentioned in dinner conversation that he is straight (in the context of being a “white heterosexual man”), which left me feeling somewhat confused (understandably, I hope!). We still went on for drinks, and when the night ended we shared an embrace, and he asked me, “When do I get to see you again?” I was already feeling a bit derailed at this point, so I sort of noncommittally responded with “After the vacation, I guess.”
I’m feeling lost with what to do with the mixed signals. He’s not the type to be deliberately toying with my emotions (he definitely knows about my identity and orientation), but I’m struggling to understand why someone would travel over an hour each way to meet up with someone he’s only fairly recently met to hang out as just friends. I’m also feeling guilty I might’ve accidentally snubbed him when we said goodbye, as I now think he probably was wanting to meet up again as just the two of us. My head and my heart are telling me different things and neither has a particularly convincing case.
A: Alex is 19 years old and (it sounds like) reevaluating his sexuality for the first time; I think mixed signals are sort of to be expected. He is probably feeling a bit unsure of himself! If you’d rather date someone with a bit more experience or at least a stronger sense of what he wants, at the risk of sounding like a total prude, I would encourage you to seek out someone a little bit older who’s definitely looking for the same things you are. But I also think it’s fine to seek to clarify things: “Hey, just to be clear, I’ve been thinking of these as dates. I’m interested in going out with you again and seeing where things go romantically. If you’re straight, or just want to be friends, that’s totally fine—just let me know.” If he seems super hesitant or unsure, reassure him that there’s nothing wrong with that and that you’re perfectly happy to be (slightly flirtatious) friends.
Q. Mouthy at graduation: I am wrapping up my master’s degree and I couldn’t be more excited about it. This is likely the highest level of education I will attain, and I am looking forward to participating in the graduation ceremony with my cohort. I would love to have my family there as well, but my mother, whom I love dearly, is refusing to attend because I won’t invite my father.
My parents are married, but my father and I are effectively estranged, for many reasons beyond these. His racism and homophobia have always been on full display, and regardless of how many times he has promised me he would not use slurs in my presence, as soon as he is around someone of a similar political bent, the promises made to his daughter go out the window. Every time something like this happens, my mother encourages me to forgive him, rather than being mad at him for lying to me and spreading hatred.
Graduation ceremonies with my father have been no exception to this pattern of broken promises. I have participated in two previous graduation ceremonies (from community college and from my undergrad) and made it clear both times that I did not want anyone to yell or cheer when I walked across the stage. Both times, he has done so. His antics at my undergraduate ceremony came mere hours after he promised to keep his mouth shut, and were in response to cheers for black graduates from their families. (Essentially, his thinking is that black people shouldn’t be able to cheer their children on while his white daughter walks across the stage in silence.) What’s more, he yelled just before the free graduation photograph (read: the only one I can afford) was taken, and so I am grimacing in the only image I have of that day.
Prudie, I am fed up. I don’t want him at my graduation. I didn’t want him at my undergraduate ceremony, but my mother convinced me that he would keep quiet and not ruin that one. Now, she’s trying to do the same thing with my graduate school commencement, promising that he will keep quiet if only I let him come. The way I see it, he has not proven himself capable of keeping any promises made to me with regard to his behavior and language, and once he gets what he wants (attending my graduation), he will have no incentive to stand by his word. My mother says that I should forgive him and give him a second chance, but I won’t get a second chance at this graduation. This is it for me.
I would love for my mother to come, but she is refusing unless I have my father there. As it stands, my partner will likely be the only family I have at graduation, and it will break my heart to see everyone else with their parents and siblings and know that I can’t have that. (My siblings have families and will likely be unable to attend the ceremony, due to scheduling conflicts.) How do I move past that to enjoy my day? Am I wrong to feel as if my mother is choosing my father over me?
A: Set aside time to grieve this loss with your friends and your partner. While you may not feel uncomplicatedly happy on your graduation day, consider this: You know for a fact you will not have to worry, as you walk across the stage, that your father is harassing the black families who are there to celebrate their students. You can’t put a price on the peace of mind that comes from not having to worry about “Hey, who is my racist dad yelling at right now?” And yes, your mother is choosing your father over you. It sounds like she does that a lot. My guess is that she’ll keep doing that for the rest of her life, absent a near-miracle, and so you need to live your life not based on the fantasy that she’s going to suddenly change, but in light of the reality that she’s decided to continually excuse, facilitate, and justify his racism. She’s decided to make a full-time job out of making it easier for your father to be racist. If you don’t want to become her co-worker in that lousy job, don’t invite either of them.
While I think the way forward here is obvious, I also understand that it’s going to be painful and feel complicated, and that there will still be a part of you that misses having them there. That’s OK, and you should be able to talk about that sadness and that loss with the people in your life. But you’re making the right decision, and I think it’s only going to get easier.
Q. Stuck in an emerging class chasm: I am a woman in my late-20s with a great job that includes an above-average salary, flexible hours, the ability to work from home, the opportunity to travel, etc. I don’t brag about my job or talk about my salary at all, but I’m guessing that people probably pick up on other signifiers. (I can afford to live alone, I take vacations each year … rare privileges for many millennials.) Since starting my job a few years ago, I have had multiple people contact me to ask if my job has any open positions where they might apply, and if I would put in a good word for them.
Here is the issue: My workplace has some key requirements that they list on the website (“We prefer candidates who have a college degree”) and some that are only really discussed behind closed doors (“We wouldn’t ever hire someone without a college degree, and we would prefer it’s from a ‘good’ school”). I am from a poor background but managed to go to college. Some of the people asking me about the jobs do not have college degrees, wouldn’t be good “culture fits,” or simply might not be capable of the kind of work my company does. Whether I think the college degree requirement is potentially stupid (I do) doesn’t matter. I usually direct these people to where they can apply, knowing they will not get an interview, because I don’t want to sound like a snooty prick turning them down. However, I always feel shitty about wasting these people’s time and letting them run in circles pointlessly. What should I do?
A: In the long run, I hope, whenever possible, you can advocate internally for qualified candidates who may not have college degrees or the “right” college degrees and push back against what constitutes a “good” school. In the meantime, if the job descriptions you’re directing your acquaintances (it sounds like these are mostly friends of friends, not people you have close, personal relationships with) to are on the same website that outlines “college degree required,” I don’t think you have to go out of your way to repeat that information. And while it’s certainly unlikely that your company’s going to stop screening people for “culture fit” (ugh), I don’t think that screening needs to start with you. As long as the job listing itself is fairly clear about necessary qualifications and experience, I don’t think you have to do anything else.
Q. Re: Ex is back: Please don’t respond. He seems like the kind of person for whom any reaction, even negative, is better than none. He clearly doesn’t care about you. This is a completely selfish move to get your attention at a time where you are finally happy. Don’t fall for it. Every time you are tempted to respond, look at your fiancé—the one who didn’t jilt you and lie to you.
A: I think there’s a good case to be made for not responding too, so thanks for this. I do think the most important work for the letter writer is not going to be done with that ex. It’s going to come from talking about her frustrations, pain, and hope for the future with the people who are in her life now and who genuinely care about her.
Q. Stop asking me to be OK with this: A guy friend I’d been dating for a few months ghosted me for one of my best friends. This was painful and awkward for a number of reasons, including how he assumed we’d all stay the same friend group throughout all of this, but mostly because he threw me aside for one of my oldest, closest friends. My friend hadn’t known the full extent of our relationship when this happened but still wants to date him. I’ve basically told her, “Do whatever you want to do. Just don’t expect me to be happy about it,” which she insists is garbage because I was only briefly dating this guy. I’ve tried to stay away from them both, but she insists I’m immature, and our other friends want me to act like everything’s fine. Am I wrong if I want to stay away from both of them, status quo or not?
A: No. They’ve both hurt you deeply and demanded you get over it to keep them comfortable. Take your space and spend time with other friends who don’t treat you like this. If you think there’s a chance at reconciliation with your “oldest, closest friend,” you might want to let her know that the two of you actually dated more seriously than she previously believed. But based on how she’s acted already, if you’d rather avoid sharing more vulnerable details for her to dismiss, that’s understandable.
Q. Devolving divorce: My husband of 15 years just announced he was divorcing me and moving on with my best friend. On top of demanding joint custody of our kids (he travels A LOT for work) he also dropped the bombshell: The house we picked out together while engaged was never put in my name. And since it was paid off by a family member, it was a gift. Not to me. I’m homeless. I asked him, “Are you saying that this house was never my home?” And he said, “It was mine. Never yours.” From what I can tell, and from a brief visit with an attorney who BARELY held back from calling me a moron for not adding my name to the deed, he’s technically right.
How do I move past this and co-parent with a man who clearly has no definition of what’s right and wrong? If the shoe were on the other foot, I’d never have even considered doing the same. And more than that, how do I deal with an ex-bestie who Single White Female’d herself right into my formerly cozy life? She may also be helping to raise my child in the near future as he plans on moving her in when I am shuffled out after the papers are finalized. I feel discarded and betrayed.
A: I’m so sorry. Feeling discarded and betrayed is a perfectly understandable response to what your soon-to-be-ex has done. I hope you have family and friends you can ask for help right now—both in finding a place to stay temporarily and also in paying for an excellent lawyer so you can advocate for yourself in the divorce process and set up a workable custody agreement. Please don’t worry about getting to a place beyond the barest of civility as it relates to child care arrangements with either your ex or your former best friend. You don’t need to rush yourself into making your peace with either of them. Find a lawyer who doesn’t treat you with barely veiled contempt for trusting your husband when you two got a house together and who can help you make a strong case for primary custody since you don’t spend most of your time on the road, and focus on taking care of yourself and spending time with your children.
Q. Babied brother: My younger brother “George” and I grew up in a happy, well-off, and close-knit family. Being the oldest, I was always excited to have my independence, getting my driver’s license as soon as I could, getting a job in high school the second it was legal, etc., despite the fact my parents never asked that of me. The problem is my younger brother. He is my polar opposite—having to be forced to learn how to drive and never getting a job while in school. My brother went on to become a Division I college athlete, so his lack of a job continued through college—sports and school were his “job,” according to my parents. He graduated a few years ago and has pursued a career where he is now 100 percent commission-based. Because of this, he’s been living with an aunt for free while he “builds his network.” But now my aunt is going to ask him to move out because one of her kids needs to move back home.
Fast forward to now—I am happily married and my husband and I recently just purchased our own home. Living in the same town where George works, my parents expect him to move in with my husband and me, and here’s the kicker—FOR FREE. This is a man who has never had to pay a bill, whether for rent or school, his entire life. He was always just given what he needed by either the college or my parents. My husband and I are happy to have him (George and I are close) and don’t need the extra money (although it would be nice), but we feel George should pay us something so that he, now in his mid-20s, can start dealing with the responsibilities of being a real adult.
Anytime I bring it up to my parents, they tell me I’m acting too much like another parent and not being supportive. I feel like I’m being supportive by offering him VERY cheap rent. They have also offered to let him live with them, but he’d prefer not since it’s about an hour away from most of his clients. Prudie, what do I do? Do I cave and allow my (not-so-little) brother to continue to be babied by my parents, or do I stand my ground?
A: First things first: I don’t think you and George are actually that close! Or rather, you may be close in a number of significant ways, but as long as that closeness is predicated on you giving him whatever he (and your parents) want, it’s not a closeness based in reality. It is OK, and in fact important, to acknowledge your very real frustration and resentment toward George. You can still care about him and want the best for him and have a solid sibling relationship, but you don’t have to join in your parents’ dynamic. The most important thing for you to do here, I think, is to stop communicating with your parents about George’s living arrangements. He is, as you say, a grown man, and you’re an adult too, so let them know from now on that you’ll be discussing the matter with him and not them. You can do this kindly and reasonably, but you do need to do it: “Thanks for the feedback, but from now on I’m going to talk with George about this directly. I’m not going to get into it with you anymore.”
Then, without trying to relitigate your parents’ choices with George, let him know that you’re happy to offer him a room at $X per month. If he decides not to take you up on it, he can decide to live elsewhere. If he wants to argue with you about whether he thinks you really need the money, you can kindly but firmly say, “I totally understand if you decide to do something else, but that’s my offer.” Your parents may very well dislike this. That’s fine! They can disapprove. You don’t have to convince them of anything, and it doesn’t actually involve them in any way.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good luck getting through the rest of the week, everyone! See you next Monday.
Q. My engagement ring diamond is too large! Seriously, the diamond in my engagement ring is way too large! I know this sounds like a humblebrag or the rant of a crazy person, but it is true. My fiancé and I have been talking marriage for a couple of years, and he proposed over the holidays. I said yes of course. He didn’t have a ring and said he was going to surprise me with one. All good so far—honestly I love this guy to the moon and back so I was thrilled. Then two weeks ago he gave me the ring. It is huge, like something one of the Real Housewives would sport, and it is just not my thing. I am not a jewelry person at all. I hadn’t given much thought to a ring, but I thought something nice and tasteful would be great. This isn’t that. I told my fiancé how I felt and he kind of shut down. But finally he admitted that he thinks the diamond needs to be bigger than the one his brother gave to his fiancée. They are super competitive and always have been. Seriously, I do not want this ring, and I don’t want to be part of a war between brothers either. I found the receipt for the ring, and it cost more than a year of my fiancé’s salary! We can’t afford this! I don’t know what to do. This is making me rethink how my fiancé is, and I’m not liking what I see. Do you see any solutions here?
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