Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Sister is lying about our baby: My sister is 15 years older than me. She is unmarried and does not want or like children. We see each other once a year during Christmas and rarely communicate otherwise. Shortly after my wife and I announced our pregnancy, my sister began writing long posts on Facebook about our pregnancy. My sister usually writes long Facebook posts about her life, but these are baffling. One post said how glad she was that we decided not to have an abortion and carry through with the pregnancy. (Our baby was planned.) Another talked about how excited she was to travel overseas with our baby since we can’t afford to. (We can.) My sister and I are not close. We have no idea where she got these ideas from or why she is posting them. I privately asked her to stop posting about our pregnancy and she wrote another post about how we asked her to be the baby’s godmother. (We didn’t.) My sister just called me to announce that she booked a hotel room nearby around our due date for three weeks. I was so shocked I just hung up. We obviously do not want her around. How do I talk to her about this in a way that won’t result in another lie-filled Facebook post?
A: This is more than a little worrying. If your sister isn’t otherwise prone to lying or exaggerating, I might be concerned that she’s experiencing a break with reality and possibly suffering from delusions. If you have other family members who are closer with her than you are, you might ask them if they’ve noticed a sudden change in her behavior; they may even be able to help you have a difficult conversation with her about her mental health and encourage her to see a counselor and a doctor. In the meantime, I think you should be careful about what information you do give her and make sure that the hospital staff know she does not have your permission to see your baby. I don’t want to jump the gun here, but between her comments about traveling with your baby and the fact that she’s either lying (or hallucinated) that she’s its godmother, I think there’s at least a possibility that she might try to leave with your baby. Again, that doesn’t mean she poses an immediate danger, but I think it’s time to (calmly and kindly) raise your concerns with friends and family and ask for their support in helping you maintain your distance from her and encouraging her to seek help.
Q. Stuck in shame: I had a four-month affair while trying to figure out the logistics of exiting an abusive marriage while unemployed. I should have been figuring out the logistics of finding a job and divorce instead of distracting myself, but my affair partner offered hope, a safe place to job-search, and the motivation to get the divorce papers completed. The affair has been over for as long as it happened at this point, but I know my ex-partner never got over it. The affair partner reaches out in creative ways, frequently, and it cost me my home and spousal support in the divorce. Believe me, I know I am the only one to blame for that.
My question is, how do I ever move on from the shame of 1) cheating on my spouse, and 2) involving another woman in the mess of the end of my marriage? At the time, I believed I loved this woman and that I could start a life with her, and there was hope of freedom from abuse … until I realized she was just as abusive and controlling. I did not mean to use her, but in the end I did. In the end, I broke my husband’s heart in trying to escape our marriage, and I broke my child’s family, which my husband will never let our child forget.
A: I do not think you can count on your ex-husband for an accurate description of your past. You didn’t break your child’s family; your ex-husband chose to abuse his child’s other parent. When one parent chooses to abuse the other, whether it’s directly in front of their child or behind closed doors, they destroy the mutual trust and shared sense of safety that’s the foundation of every family. I’m not suggesting that you reframe your affair as an unequivocally good thing, but take a look at what you wrote above: You “should have” figured out how to find a job and finalize your divorce during this four-month period, but it actually sounds like that’s exactly what having an affair enabled you to do. She gave you hope to keep going, a safe place to look for work, and the motivation you needed to sign your divorce papers. The fact that you walked away from your relationship with her once you realized she was abusive and controlling much in the same way as your ex-husband doesn’t mean you used her. It means that you’re committed to your own safety and that you don’t want to be in an abusive relationship.
It may not be easy to forgive yourself for doing what you needed to do to safely get out of your abusive marriage, especially if your ex-husband tries to use your child against you. I hope you can find a therapist or at least a supportive friend who can help remind you that the person who first broke the trust in your marriage was the one who started committing abuse—not you.
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Q. Neighbor above is a stomper: I have a 4-year-old issue for which I feel a solution has expired. I bought a snug condo for myself and two daughters cheaply and smartly. Moving is not an option. When we moved in, we realized we have a stomper above us. She’s not a large woman, but she has hardwood floors and definitely walks on her heels. Rapidly. Constantly. The sound reminds me of someone in a bad mood.
I have gotten her to stop using her treadmill, which made our brains shake and pictures on the walls bounce. We have put white noise machines in both bedrooms and played music on weekends in attempts to cover the stomping. It doesn’t really work. I still get woken up at 5:45 a.m. on weekdays as her bedroom is above mine. Then it’s off to the races. She walks rapidly nonstop. It doesn’t appear she even sits down to enjoy a morning cup of joe. At night, between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., we joke that she’s touching each object in her condo, or that she moves each object to a new spot and then returns it, or that she walks back-and-forth between her room and the oven to check that it’s off.
I fantasize about placing marbles and jacks where she steps. Beyond that, what can I do? I can’t ask her to change the way she walks. I can’t ask her to put down carpeting or dig up the floors to put in noise-reducing padding. Am I toast?
A: I wonder if you can offer to help pay for the carpeting or to have professionals soundproof your ceilings/her floors. Especially since you were able to buy your place cheaply, if you happen to have the money, that may be the best and most cost-effective solution. I understand that the lack of soundproofing makes it seem as if she’s contorting herself into a series of increasingly improbable positions just to make noise, but I think it will help to remember the problem is with the building, not this woman. She’s not leaning out the windows screaming on the phone or throwing dishes. She just gets up early and walks around when she’s getting ready. As long as you can bear that in mind so that when you two speak you’re able to be polite and friendly, I think you two will be able to figure out a number of possible solutions.
Q. Shared crushing: My boyfriend, “Rick,” and I have a very strong relationship and great communication, and we’re both in it for the long haul. Recently it came out that we both have a crush on one of his co-workers. I’m not usually a jealous person, but in this instance I find myself overcome with it. He has reassured me several times that he loves me, is dedicated to our relationship, and would never allow things to develop to that point, and I the same.
But he still seems to want a friendship with her outside of work. With my work crushes, I purposefully avoid one-on-one time to make sure the crush doesn’t become something more, and I’m concerned that Rick only wants to grow closer with this crush. He suggested we all be friends but I’d rather not for the same reason. I cringe at the idea of asking him not to spend time with her and don’t want to control him in any way. But part of me feels like that’s a reasonable ground rule for all of our crushes, especially the admittedly strong ones. It seems inevitable that spending lots of one-on-one time with a crush would develop into something more. Am I just being that crazy girlfriend? I don’t know how much of my thinking is just irrational jealous-brain. How do you think we should proceed?
A: I hope very much that you can stop dismissing your own very understandable desires for honesty and closeness as “being that crazy girlfriend.” Nor is it “controlling” to ask your monogamous partner, who claims to love and prioritize you, not to pursue an as-yet-nonexistent friendship with someone you both have a crush on. It seems inevitable that spending a lot of one-on-one time with a crush might potentially lead to something more, because that’s exactly the point. This may very well be an opportunity for you to speak honestly about desire and monogamy and freedom and care, but it can’t be rooted in “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Sure, I had a mild crush on her, but my recent drive to become her friend has nothing to do with that. I’m just going to take steps toward making her a more serious part of my life. Why are you acting threatened?” Your boyfriend needs to be honest that on at least some level he does want things with her to develop to a certain point—even if that certain point is only an increased degree of attention and nonconsummated excitement.
One last thing on the subject of jealousy and “rationality.” Whether a couple practices monogamy or not, there’s no reason to demand perfect rationality from each other at all times. It’s perfectly reasonable and legitimate to say something like, “This person [especially someone you only know a little bit from work] makes me feel anxious and insecure about our relationship. I want to be reassured that you still care about me and to spend some time reaffirming our connection.” Asking your partner not to invest more time and energy in someone else they have a crush on—or at least to be honest with themselves and you about what they’re getting out of the situation and prioritizing your connection before any others—is a perfectly rational desire.
Q. Trouble in paradise: My husband used to have severe anger management issues. About four years ago, I made the decision to separate from him because I could no longer deal with his anger. We were separated for a year. He did a lot of inner work during the separation, and we ended up getting back together. While we were separated, I had a sexual relationship with my female best friend.
My husband and I have been back together for about two years now. When we initially got back together, I told him about the encounters I had with my best friend. He insisted that I not be friends with her anymore. He didn’t want me to see her or talk to her. I agreed. It’s been a couple years, and my husband and I have moved across the country. I really miss my friend. I recently asked him how he would feel if I began talking to her again, just as friends. He still doesn’t want me speaking to her even though she and I are 2,000 miles apart. I never cheated on him and I love and respect him. But I could really use a friend right now. My husband has a best friend out here where we’ve moved. I have made some new friends, but I just wish I could talk to my best friend again. Do you think my husband’s request is valid?
A: I think the more pressing issue isn’t whether your husband is “valid” in asking you not to speak to your former best friend, but whether she’d be interested in resuming a friendship with you. I don’t say this lightly or to make you feel guilty, but have you considered the possibility that she might decline to resume your former friendship after you threw her over for your husband? If you were to get back in touch with her, would you be open to apologizing or hearing about how your sudden radio silence hurt her, or were you hoping to just pick up where things left off? That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider giving her a call, just that I think it’s worth asking yourself these questions before you do.
I can certainly understand why your husband felt insecure about your relationship during your year of separation, but given that you two separated because of his own inability to deal with anger without taking it out on you, I’m a little concerned that he demanded you stop speaking to your best friend as a condition upon getting back together. I think it’s fair for you to say to your husband, “I miss my best friend, and I’m going to see if she wants to start talking again. I’m available to talk to you about what boundaries we can agree upon in my friendship with her, but this isn’t a decision for you to make for me.”
Again, that doesn’t mean you should just ring her up tomorrow; it’s perfectly fine to take some time (maybe with a couples counselor) talking about how to navigate this well as a couple. But this isn’t just some short-term fling you’re revisiting out of idle curiosity; you have a long-standing friendship with this woman that preexisted your sexual relationship. The two of you can and should talk about your husband’s feelings here, but that doesn’t mean his feelings should dictate your actions.
Q. Dismissive friend: I was mugged at the end of January. It was traumatic, and it took me a long time to get back to a feeling of safety. My best friend, “John,” was helpful, checking up on me and asking how I was doing. About a week and a half ago, some guy followed me back to the train station when I was walking at night alone. He never tried to touch me, but it was intensely creepy. It brought back the feelings of being unsafe from the mugging as well as a new set of feelings of uncertainty about people’s motives and intentions. I posted about this experience on social media, and I got a fair amount of support from (mostly female) friends.
The men in my life, including John, just don’t seem to get it. John said that although he understood it was upsetting, it was “nothing like being mugged,” since the guy wasn’t trying to hurt me. He’s also suggested that the mugging was the really traumatic event, and this would hardly register if it weren’t for my history of being mugged. These comments strike me as dismissive and, frankly, insulting. My question is, do I need to talk to John about how his comments made me feel? And how do I go about doing that?
A: If you want to talk to John because you think he’ll be willing to listen to something he doesn’t have much experience with and you hope to keep talking about things like this with him, then absolutely you can. But if you decide that you would rather not try to convince a close friend of a very painful reality because the idea of being dismissed by someone who’s previously been so supportive is too painful, you absolutely do not have to. If you’d rather prioritize getting support from your mostly women friends who do understand what you’re going through, that’s absolutely fine. The fact that John didn’t just keep his mouth shut but went out of his way to explain why you shouldn’t have been afraid makes me worry a bit about his receptivity!
But I hope he can listen if you say something like this: “Please don’t tell me how you think I should feel about getting followed by a stranger at night. I’m not trying to make a numbered list of how traumatic different encounters with strange men are, and it doesn’t actually help me to remind me that my mugging was worse. Part of what’s so frightening about being followed by a stranger is not knowing if they’re about to get violent. They’ve already shown they’re willing to do something that violates all rules of politeness and social norms. If you haven’t been followed or attacked by strange men, I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from telling me how I ought to relax when it happens to me.”
Q. Buffering my mean mom: My parents have been married to each other for 56 years. They are both retired but keep busy maintaining their properties and traveling. They both have good health for their age. A problem that has always existed in their relationship but seems to be getting worse is my mom’s constant picking on my dad. She will nag on his driving; she will nag on his choice of words; anything and everything he does is subject to criticism. None of this is provoked in any way. I think she could benefit from therapy to deal with issues that she has always ignored in the process of raising a successful family while also working—but I don’t live locally so I am limited in how much I can intervene. Is there anything that I can say to get her to wake up and see the destructive pattern she is forcing them to live under? He gets exasperated but she won’t stop at his request. I speak up for my dad when I am there to hear it and she will stop, but only for that moment. They are both amazing people and have built an enviable life together. Everyone else in the world would call her sweet—including me in all other instances. Is there any hope for her to soften toward my father?
A: I hope so, especially because you say that your mom is an otherwise reasonable and openhearted person! I think you have grounds to share what you’ve noticed with her, especially since you have a history of speaking up in the moment and that hasn’t yet hit home with her. I think rather than tying all your hopes on getting her to agree to go to therapy upfront (which might be easier for her to dismiss), you should just focus on her behavior and ask her what she thinks she needs in order to change: “This is hard for me to talk about because I love you and Dad so much, and I admire your relationship in so many ways. But the way that you speak to him is just exhausting and unkind. I don’t know what it’s like when you two are alone, but when I’m around the two of you, I’ve heard you spend hours tearing apart his driving, his choice of words, and everything else he does. I think that if I had a partner who spoke to me like that, you’d say something in my defense. I’ve tried to ask you to stop before, but the problem persists. I can’t imagine that it feels good to be so angry with him all the time, and I know that he doesn’t like it either. I know I can’t tell you what to do, but I love you and I want what’s best for both of you, and I hope you will seriously give some thought to what help you might need in order to change this pattern. In the meantime, I’m going to keep addressing it in the moment if you berate him in front of me.” You may want to check in with your dad separately, too. You say he gets exasperated when she does it, but it may be illuminating to ask how he feels about it in general and if he has any sense of what his other options are.
Q. Re: Neighbor above is a stomper: If you have a condo, it is likely you have a homeowner association. In my building, the HOA bylaws require residents with hardwood floors to have at least 75 percent of the floor covered (with carpet or furniture). Check your bylaws. If they do not cover this situation, it may be worth trying to get the bylaws updated. From an HOA perspective, they want to maintain the value of the homes within the condo. I know this may seem confrontational, but it’s one avenue to at least look into.
A: Bless all of you condo experts—I’ve gotten a number of letters to this same effect (although some of them say 80 percent). This is a really common problem, letter writer, and there should be some rules or guidelines in place to help people in your exact situation. Which will help too, I think, as you try to take your upstairs neighbor out of the “b*tch eating crackers” category, and remember that she likely has absolutely no idea what her normal steps sound like to you, even if you’ve asked her to keep it down in the past.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone—see you next week.
From How to Do It
Q. When should I tell the guys I date that I’m a virgin? I am an almost–30-year-old straight woman who’s never had sex. No P-in-V, no oral, not even heavy petting. I have kissed two guys, neither of which were great experiences. (My first kiss was five years ago, and he went from zero to tongue-down-throat.) Because of some life messiness, I also haven’t dated much. All of this is to say, I am super inexperienced in all aspects of relationships. Now that I’m in a more stable life place, I’m trying to get into dating, but my inexperience keeps tripping me up. I’m not even comfortable making out with a guy on the second date, but on the past few dates I’ve been on, these guys have gone for it and I’ve just frozen up. I get way too in my own head wondering if I’m awful at kissing, and does everyone hook up on the second date, and oh God now I have to tell him about how I’m a virgin and he’ll judge me? On the second date, I don’t even know if I want to have sex with the guy yet. It generally takes me a while to build up attraction to someone. So he thinks I don’t like him or I’m frigid, and I figure it’s not fair to string him along and break it off.
A lot of advice I see is to just be upfront about who you are and what you’re looking for, but whenever I go out with someone from a dating app, no one wants to move more slowly. So I’m not sure if I need to suck it up and do things that make me uncomfortable, or if I need to disclose my lack of history upfront and hope they don’t think I’m crazy or laugh at me. What should I do?