Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Diamond: Before my mother died, she had the diamonds on her engagement ring made into three necklaces for her three granddaughters. My niece left hers with her mother before going to college; she is engaged now and wants to turn the necklace back into a ring. My sister lost the necklace. She swears she turned the house upside down looking for it. It’s missing. Now my sister wants my daughter to give up her necklace and pretend it is her daughter’s. The necklace has been appraised at over $1,000.
My daughter is older and gay, and she never wears jewelry. My sister insulted my daughter by saying the necklace was “wasted” on her and it was “highway robbery” for her to pay the full price. She insinuated that our mother wouldn’t want my daughter or me to “ruin” the only wedding any of the grandchildren will have. (Our other niece committed suicide two years ago.) I told her she needed to stop talking before she ruined our relationship, then I hung up. As far as I can tell, my sister hasn’t fessed up yet nor has she contacted my daughter. I haven’t mentioned this situation to anyone and I am afraid of my daughter getting hurt. It was a hard road when she came out and I worry this will make her reject the rest of our family. I am furious at my sister. If she had been apologetic, I know my daughter would just give her the necklace out of the goodness of her heart, but her attitude is awful now. Should I tell my daughter about this?
A: It’s one thing to lose an heirloom someone else left in trust with you, but to demand an heirloom from another relative so you can cover your ass instead of just saying, “I’m sorry, I lost it, how can I make it up to you?” especially when you clearly consider that relative less important by virtue of being gay and childless … whew. I can see why you’re worried that your daughter would cut off that side of the family if she knew! Your sister, at least, sounds like she’s begging for an estrangement.
I’m of two minds here. Part of me wants to spare your daughter knowledge of her aunt’s indifference and entitlement, if it’s at all possible. In that case, I’d suggest you tell your sister that you’re going to do her the favor of not sharing how cruelly she spoke about your daughter and that you hope she’ll behave better in the future. You’re a better judge than I am of your sister—is she the type of person who’d appreciate the chance to half-acknowledge she behaved badly, then never speak of it again, or would she be likely to throw a fit? If you think the second outcome is more likely, then I think you’re better off warning your daughter in advance, because there’s not much you can do to ensure your sister’s silence and I think your daughter deserves some warning.
In that case, give your daughter the bare bones of what happened: that you stood up for her with your sister, and that you’re ready to offer whatever she needs in support. It may be that your daughter decides to stop speaking with her aunt; frankly, I think that’s the best choice for her.
Q. Breaking up with a live-in partner: My boyfriend of four years has occasionally shown abusive behavior toward me. He has never hurt me but he has yelled at me, insulted me, threatened me, and broken things. I still love him but I know I need to get out. I’ve read a lot about abusive behavior and everything says that it gets worse when the partner tries to leave. The problem is that we live together. If I tell him I am moving out before it happens, I worry he will break my things, change the locks, or worse. He has pushed me into the backyard and locked me out in the middle of the night before, and he locks me out of our bedroom if he is angry with me. But it seems incredibly cruel to move all my things while he is at work and have him come home to an empty apartment. I remember a letter in your column where you called that an incredibly cruel way to break up with someone. I don’t know if I can blindside him like that. I don’t know if I can lie to him while I look for housing. I have no family or place to stay where we live, I don’t have extra money, and housing is hard to find short-notice. I feel trapped. What can I do?
A: I’m so glad that you wrote in asking for clarification about what I said, because there’s absolutely nothing cruel about prioritizing your physical and financial safety when trying to leave an abusive partner. Leaving a non-abusive partner when they’re out of the house and taking your stuff with you just to avoid a difficult conversation is cruel; leaving a partner when they’re out of the house and taking your stuff with you because he has a history of locking you out of the house and breaking your possessions is smart, self-protective, and absolutely necessary. You are not blindsiding your partner in leaving him—he knows perfectly well that he chooses to abuse you. He knows just as well as you that what he does is wrong. Please don’t put yourself in a position where you have to manage a secret house-hunting project on the side, and definitely don’t feel like you can’t leave until you’ve explained your reasons to him or given him a sufficient heads-up. He forfeited the right to know your thoughts or plans the first time he threatened you. Anything that you do to take care of yourself and get somewhere safe right now is not only OK—it’s healthy, necessary, and good. If you don’t know anyone you can stay with in the short term, please contact either the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local women’s shelter to get help finding a place to stay. If you have any trustworthy friends you can talk to about this, even if they don’t live nearby, please reach out for support so you have at least one or two people in your corner during this difficult stage. You have every right to get out in whatever way keeps you safe. Please let us know how you’re doing—I hope to hear from you again soon.
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Q. Passive-aggressive groceries: My mother-in-law will come and watch my children a few times a year so my husband and I can go on vacation as a couple. I am so grateful for the help and the ability to spend adult one-on-one time with my spouse. Usually these trips are only a few days, with the last one being a whole week.
My issue comes with the household groceries while we are away. I will go and buy groceries and leave cash for anything they may want to do while we are away. I used to not buy extra groceries and just leave cash until my mother-in-law made a side comment about how there wasn’t any healthy food in the house with an implication about how I feed my children. Next time I bought all sorts of healthy foods to choose from, and then there was a comment regarding that there were no chips, mac and cheese, soda, or fun and easy things to eat. So, OK, this last trip I bought all sorts of groceries and tried to get everything I thought they could possibly want. And they ate none of it, and I came home to spoiled meat, bananas, oranges, etc. I don’t care to pay for them to eat out every meal as a splurge but I would like not to have things go to waste in either direction. It just feels bizarre. My husband feels like this is not a big deal but he doesn’t notice the subtle digs in my direction. He says anything I want to do about it he would support and I believe him because he has always been my point person in the family in the past. I honestly just want to not rock the boat at all but would love to not spend an extra hundred dollars on food that will not be eaten.
A: The child care–during-vacations part sounds great, but I agree that this is a frustrating pattern. I think the best way to deal with the groceries issue is to take him up on his offer of support. Your husband is now the “groceries before vacation” point person of the family. The next time she says anything, cheerfully say, “Oh, Jim’s taken over grocery duty for this trip! If you have any questions about what’s in the fridge, or need money for takeout, or anything like that, talk to him.” That’s your answer every time she asks you about it, and that’s the tone you want to strive for—imagine you’re at work and getting a friendly-but-confused caller who’s mistaken you for the guy on the other side of the cubicle. “Oh, sorry, you’ll want to talk to Jim about that! Let me get him for you.” My guess is that she’ll be slightly less reluctant to offer those needling little remarks to her own son (that’s why she’s been targeting and isolating you), and it’s a great opportunity for him to run a little family interference.
Q. Open and shut: I’m a single woman in a mutually satisfying sexual relationship with a married man. We are in this relationship because his wife stopped having sex with him when he was 42. After two years, he approached her about opening the relationship and she said, “You’re not getting it here. Just don’t bring home any children.”
Our relationship doesn’t take away significant time from his family. We get together a few times a month (think I’m staying late at the office) and the occasional overnight at my place (going to watch the game with the guys and don’t want to drive home drunk). His family life takes priority, and he’s a good dad and husband. He already has a wife and I don’t want a husband.
Lately, his wife has been rethinking her position and now doesn’t like him being in an outside relationship. She’s been bugging him to end our relationship. She still doesn’t want to have sex with him. His position is that it’s not fair for her to just expect him to end things when he’s with someone whom he cares about. Obviously it’s up to him to end things if he wants to. But I can’t help thinking her request is unreasonable. What say you?
A: I think we’re getting a little too far from whose opinion matters here—it matters a great deal what her husband thinks of her request, significantly less what his sex partner thinks of her request, and hardly at all, in practical terms, what I think. Plenty of people have marital arrangements that aren’t grounded strictly in principles of exact fairness. I think you could waste a lot of time trying to figure out whether his marriage is fair to him. I’d rather you spent time figuring out whether this arrangement is still working for you as well as it was two years ago, or if there’s another kind of relationship you’d rather be in.
If all you’re looking for is someone familiar and reliable to have fun with a few times a month after a busy day at the office and things have worked out with him for the past two years, that’s one thing. But if you’re finding yourself getting emotionally involved in his marriage and trying to litigate whether his wife is fair or unfair, reasonable or unreasonable, frigid and demanding, or misunderstood and neglected, I think you’re wasting your time. If your sort-of-boyfriend wants to be honest with his wife and say he’s going to continue to see you and he’s willing to accept whatever consequences may arise, great. But if he’s trying to maneuver you into a more complicated, compromising situation than the one you’ve enjoyed for the past two years, then I think he’s putting way too much of the burden of his marriage on you.
Q. Freelance schedule: I have been with my partner for just about a year now, and she is truly lovely. She is a very loving, patient, considerate partner, with one caveat: She is a freelancer and her job always trumps any long-term plans we have. For example, we have planned to take several trips together and she has bailed on half of them because of her work. In theory this is understandable, but I think it’s the fact that she assumes my schedule is just as flexible and carefree as hers. It’s not, so when our vacations together get canceled at the last minute, it hurts my feelings and also leaves me without a much-needed vacation. This problem bleeds into other elements of our life together also when it comes to making longer-term plans around moving and/or planning for the future. She just doesn’t seem to be capable of being “pinned down,” if you will. Her free-spirit attitude is largely why I love her, but am I being ridiculous feeling like I’d like to be considered?
A: In the short term, I think you should probably plan a trip or two with friends or even by yourself so that you don’t rob yourself of vacation time waiting on your girlfriend (and tell her so, not in a punitive sense, but to let her know your plans so she can be excited for you). In the long term, you’ll want to have a bigger-picture conversation about free-spiritedness vs. prioritizing one another, and how you might feel differently after being her partner for a year than you did when you two had only been dating a few months. I think it’s better to figure out a vacation compromise before you get into questions like moving in together someday or making plans for the future, but you can absolutely tell her that those things are important to you and that you want to try to strike a balance between her independence and feeling invested in making decisions as a couple.
Q. Mental health secret: My partner recently had a health crisis in which they seriously attempted to harm themselves. We sought immediate help and there was a weeklong stay at a mental health facility, followed by intensive outpatient treatment. Our whole family is in therapy as well. My partner is doing much better, but they have only returned to work part time as they continue treatment. The issue is not only am I anxious and stressed, but I need time off to deal with my partner’s treatment. We have great family support, but outside of that no one knows. Because of the stigma attached to mental health we are uncomfortable divulging the situation to just anyone. I finally let my boss in, who is very flexible and understanding. She has been wonderful in giving me the time I need. But my co-workers are starting to notice that obviously I am in and out of the office, my mood is different, etc. They have made underhanded comments and I just want to snap, “My partner tried to kill themselves and I am barely holding it together!” If it were any other health issue I feel like there would be some compassion and understanding, even a plant or a hot meal. But because mental health is so understood I feel alone and unable to defend myself. How do I address the new attitude and comments toward me at work in vague yet firm way?
A: If you feel comfortable acknowledging that what you’re going through is a kind of family emergency (and it sounds like you might be), I think the right balance of vague-but-firm would probably run along these lines: “You might have noticed that I’ve been out of the office more often lately and I’ve sometimes been stressed out and distracted. I just want to let you know I’m dealing with an ongoing family crisis and I really appreciate your patience and forbearance. We’re getting the medical treatment we need, and I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, but I may occasionally be less available than I’m used to being until things get stabilized.” If you have one or two co-workers you’re especially close with, you might also ask for a little help managing some of your projects or just taking a coffee break and chatting about TV or something mindless every once in a while. Hopefully once they realize you’re going through something challenging and are not just in a bad mood, they’ll be more supportive and less suspicious. I’m so glad your partner is getting treatment and I hope you get all the help you need—best of luck to you both.
Q. Gays absconding to yonder school: I am a gay man in my late 20s planning to attend an expensive law school in the fall. Fortunately, much of the costs are covered by scholarships and my savings. Additionally, my parents have a significant chunk of money originally intended for my undergraduate education that was never spent because years ago I chose a lower-ranked school at a full scholarship over more expensive options. My parents have generously indicated that these funds are available to me now.
But they are also deeply Catholic. In recent years, the unspoken peace treaty involves me never sharing my romantic life and them sincerely praying for my return to the church. However, unbeknownst to them, I am considering moving with a boyfriend (of eight months) to be close to my law school in August. It would be my first time living with someone.
I fear discovery of this situation by my family could prompt bitterness as well as the loss of financial support. Optionally, I could try to conceal my relationship and living situation from them long enough to irrevocably secure the assets in question (six months to a year). This could prove difficult; my parents will want to visit. My (saintly) boyfriend says he’s up for whatever I decide. Ultimately, I will have to confront my parents on this topic, but I do not know if now is the best time. Should I attempt deception?
A: (I imagine at least a few readers will write in advising you against going to an expensive law school; I’ll let them handle that.) I think the sooner you can get the money from your parents, the better off you’ll be and the less time they’ll be able to spend holding it over your head trying to control you. If they’ve offered you the money and you’re in your late 20s, I don’t see why they need to hold off (unless it’s for tax purposes?)—it’s not like you’re a teenager starting college and don’t have any experience handling money or paying your own way.
If you need my permission not to tell your parents that your roommate is your boyfriend, you certainly have it. You don’t have to come out (again) on anyone’s timetable but yours, and this is money they’ve earmarked for your education that would do you real, substantial good. I don’t believe it would be dishonorable to postpone conversations about your relationships until after you’ve secured educational funding if you know they’d try to use money against you. I will say this: I don’t think what you’re contemplating is deceptive. Your parents know that you are gay. They also know that you don’t share details about your romantic life with them because they’re homophobic. Continuing to not share details with them is not deceptive so much as the order of the day. I do think you should prepare yourself for the worst and assume it’s at least possible they may find out and withhold the money. Have an emergency plan in place for that, even if it means postponing your entrance for a year while you try to find the money somewhere else.
Q. Re: Breaking up with a live-in partner: OK now, in terms of practical advice, the letter writer needs to start planning now: 1) Rent a storage unit so you are ready to pack your affairs and move out in the middle of the day if need be. 2) Start reaching out discreetly to friends you trust so that you have somewhere to land if you need to leave in an emergency. 3) Find nearby domestic violence shelters. 4) If I were her, I’d have a go-bag ready somewhere he can’t find it, such as your place of work or your car. 5) Start getting comfortable with the idea of calling the police. If he locks you out of your mutual apartment and starts destroying your things, you don’t have to sit there and take it. The police will respond and kick him out of the house for at least that night.
A: This is great, specific advice. Thank you. Someone else suggested getting renters insurance if she doesn’t have it already and informing the landlord she’ll be moving out discreetly and would appreciate it if the landlord didn’t answer any questions from anyone else about where she’s moved to. Wherever the letter writer goes next, she should be careful whom she gives her address to, just to make sure it doesn’t get back to her ex.
Q. Re: Passive-aggressive groceries: The letter writer writes that her husband “says anything I want to do about it he would support.” Um, this is his mother, right? Why on earth is he not the one dealing with this?
A: I’m getting a lot of letters to this effect, and I also find this comes up frequently in letters—someone writes in to me about their difficulty with an in-law and mentions something along the lines of “My partner [usually a husband] supports whatever I want to do.” My advice in those cases is almost always that the letter writer’s partner shouldn’t just support what the letter writer does but should be taking over entirely. I want to assume best intentions at least on the part of the husband here and say he may simply have been a bit clueless as to how persistent and frustrating this dynamic has been for his partner. Letter writer, I’d encourage you to share this letter with him and point out the ways his mother has specifically targeted you out of his sight so that he has a clearer picture on just how bad this problem gets when he’s not around.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
From Care and Feeding
Q. How can I get my kid to stop cosleeping with me?: Our 15-month-old son is generally a fun and easy kid. The only major problem is one for which his dad and I are basically to blame. We’ve ended up being accidental cosleepers and don’t know how to get ourselves out of it. How can we remedy this situation before we wake up with a 12-year-old sleeping between us?
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