Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Morning, all! Let’s chat.
Q. Thieving nephew: My husband and I hired his 19-year-old nephew to help us with our small business; he stole over $4,000 in petty cash from us over the past year. Our accountant uncovered this and our security tapes proved it. My sister-in-law paid us the money back so we wouldn’t file criminal charges. Her son excused his actions by saying we paid him poorly and he didn’t think we would notice.
He put my husband and me as a work reference after we fired him. I have been in contact with several potential employers; I was honest and told them he stole from us and could not be trusted with a position handling cash. Some of this got back to my sister-in-law, who accused me of “sabotaging” her son. He “paid” his dues and I countered she paid them and nothing in his behavior before or since shows any remorse. I am not going to lie for a thief. It would be unethical for me to not warn future employers about the reality of what they are getting. Now my sister-in-law is screeching to high heaven about me trying to “ruin” her son. My husband is ready to throw his hands up in the air. I don’t think I am doing anything wrong. If he weren’t my nephew, he would be in jail now. Should I keep being honest or just say no comment when these people call? My nephew has no work experience but us.
A: Your nephew needs to stop listing the two of you as references! I get that you’re his only work experience, but if his options are “apply for jobs as an inexperienced 19-year-old” versus “apply for jobs where my only references explain that I stole from them,” then clearly the better choice is to leave you off the résumé. For someone with the nerve to casually steal $4,000 under a security camera, he is astonishingly naïve. That said, your nephew didn’t write to me for advice; you did. It’s interesting that your sister-in-law blamed you rather than her brother for something the two of you did together (namely, told the truth). I think before he throws up his hands, the two of you should have one last talk with her together. “Ozymandias needs to stop listing us as references. We will not lie when people ask us directly about our experience, so he cannot list us as people who can recommend him professionally.” If your SIL interjects with “But how will he find a job without your references?” or any variation thereof, you have only to say, “I don’t know. Ozymandias will have to figure that out.”
Q. Separating from wife: My wife recently told me that after 11 years together, she is leaving. I was devastated, but we’re continuing living as normally as possible until our lease is up (two months left). Then I found out, as I was frantically trying to repair our relationship, that she was not only already seeing someone new but was trying to have a child with them. I am beyond crushed and I have no idea how to deal with this situation. I’m somehow still in love with her, despite my anger and sadness. She wants to remain my best friend, and I really want her to be happy despite everything. Now, we are living together and she’s still seeing this guy. How do I survive the next two months? Is it healthy to be friends with her after this?
A: Do not spend a lot of time worrying about your second question right now; “surviving the next two months” is the order of the day. It’s completely understandable that you still love your wife and parts of you don’t feel like the news that she’s not only with someone else but trying to have a child together has actually landed. It must feel surreal and like any minute now you’re going to wake up and return to your old life. I think it’s lovely and generous that you want her to be happy, but I also don’t want you to feel like it’s your job to be supportive and gracious toward someone who cheated on you (I think that’s the only explanation for how she’s already so seriously involved with someone else that kids are on the table) and is leaving you for someone else.
Your lease is up in two months, and when that happens, this strange little bubble of “we’re over but still living together and kind of acting like everything’s fine” will be over, and I want you to have as much help and support in your corner when that day comes. Talk to your friends, your relatives, and the people who love you, and ask for help finding a new place, separating your things as you get packed up, making plans to get together and talk about how you’re doing, etc. I’d also suggest lining up a therapist who can help you grieve the sudden shock and loss of your marriage.
You don’t have to hate your soon-to-be-ex-wife if you don’t want to. But the fact that she’s already pushing you to be her “best friend” suggests that she’s trying to rush you past having your own feelings about how she hurt and betrayed you, and I don’t think she has a right to do that. Give yourself permission to be hurt, to be angry, to set boundaries, to take time, to not set your emotions according to her schedule. Whether or not you two will be friends in the future isn’t certain, but if what she’s asking of you right now is “Smile and be my best friend so you don’t ask tricky questions about when I started seeing this other guy or why I didn’t share any of my doubts about our marriage before it came time to leave,” then she’s not acting like a real friend—she’s trying to cover her ass and control your behavior.
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Q. Faking it: I was getting coffee as two colleagues entered the kitchen. One of them said to me, “I wish I could grow my hair that long.” I smiled and said, “Me too, but I have to settle for extensions.” They complimented me on how natural I look, I thanked them for the compliment, and I left the room. I heard behind me, “Her hair is even more fake than she is,” and an equally unkind retort. This was a punch in the gut because she’s spot on. I am completely fake.
I am generally indifferent to 90 percent of the people in my life. I purposefully endeavor to compliment a new look, ask how a vacation was, and actively listen when people drone on about their lives. Clearly, my insincerity is shining through. As an aside, I’m aware those women were being fake with me as well. I don’t enjoy being fake. My genuine self would avoid interaction entirely. I don’t hate people, but I despise such “nonnegotiable social conventions” as small talk and baby showers. I just don’t care. Any thoughts on how to proceed? If my falsehood is obvious, why even bother?
A: I’m so sorry you had to hear that. And while I don’t want to discourage you from taking the opportunity to do a little soul searching, I’m not so sure that you are as fake as you fear. You say you’re generally indifferent to 90 percent of people but that you go out of your way to make conversation and listen—that seems broadly true of a lot of us, I think! Most people only have so many close friends, and a big part of life is making pleasant-if-inconsequential conversation with people we might not feel active hostility toward but don’t especially care about particularly. I’m not so sure that these two women were seeing into your inmost soul when they disparaged your hair and called you fake; you seem convinced that they must have seen that about you because it’s just that obvious, but I’m convinced they were determined to say something unkind about you and it just happened to hit you in a sensitive spot.
I’d be more concerned about your “fakeness” if you said, “Sometimes I ask people about a part of their appearance I secretly despise in order to offer them a misdirected compliment. Then as soon as they’re a few steps away, I say—just loudly enough that they might be able to hear it—something cutting about their hair.” That’s the kind of behavior I’d encourage you to seriously reevaluate. The fact that you’re not wild about professional small talk and would prefer silence more often doesn’t make you fake; it’s fairly relatable! The fakeness you describe above, at least in the context of your job, is the sort of thing a lot of people have to do every day in order to get a paycheck, not a sign that they lack sincerity. And your hair sounds lovely.
That doesn’t mean there’s no point in reflection right now. What areas of your life do you find yourself most often forced to engage in small talk? Do you think there might find some opportunities to—without being rude or hurting your professional reputation—ask slightly fewer questions and enjoy a bit more silence? Are most of your co-workers Regina George cosplayers such that it might be worth considering a career change, or is it just these two? How can you give them a wider berth in the future, and less weight to their opinions? Do you want to let them know you heard what they said and ask them to keep their remarks about your appearance to themselves from now on? But the people who should be doing the real soul searching right now are your co-workers.
Q. When should we resolve arguments? My partner and I have different needs during arguments. He needs time to cool off and think without me (we’re long-distance, so this usually means we call the next night in about 24 hours), but I feel terrible the whole day and would rather settle it right away. Is there a way to compromise on this? Our arguments have mainly been about me being late or forgetting things because of my ADHD, which has gotten better with my current medication, but I still want to know how to handle this in the future.
A: How often are you two having these arguments, and how serious are they? If you two have a garden-variety disagreement and he needs a full 24 hours with no contact, I think it’s fair to ask him to at least send a brief text reassuring you that he’s looking forward to talking later and resolving things together. I’m curious, from the tone of your letter, if he begins distant and cold in order to punish you for being forgetful as a result of your ADHD. Of course I understand that he might be frustrated when you forget things, but I hope he’s generally understanding and supportive of your diagnosis, realizes you’re not forgetting things on purpose in order to make life harder for him or because you don’t care, and offers you grace and latitude. If that’s not the case, and he treats ADHD-related forgetfulness as personal, intentional harm (and retaliates by ignoring you for 24 hours), then I think you might have a more serious problem.
Q. Someone else’s dirty apartment: I am very close to an old friend of mine, who acts more as a sister figure to me. Her mom passed away in our late teens, which brought us closer together than ever. Ever since, we’ve shared a strong, kind friendship, generally one with open communication and strong boundaries based on mutual interests and similar senses of humor.
However, there’s one area in which we strongly differ. Growing up, my mom made me into a tiny, live-in maid; her mom never made her do any chores whatsoever. From a young age, I can remember going over to her house for a sleepover and sometimes spending an hour or more neurotically cleaning her room, while she goofed around and entertained me. After the death of her mother, I often cleaned her apartment, an occasional habit that lasted well into our mid-20s. I tried to teach her how to clean, but given her grief, she simply couldn’t handle it or didn’t want to try. A couple of years ago, I finally realized it wasn’t a good use of my time or hers for me to continue to clean and that she’d either clean herself or hire someone to do it. She hasn’t. While the level of grime isn’t to the point of a health concern, it is noticeable to our mutual friends, two of whom have brought up the issue with me. She won’t let her family members come over and see her apartment because she knows they’d be alarmed, and I’m pretty sure she’s not actively dating in part because she doesn’t want people to come back and see her apartment. I know that bringing up the subject would hurt her feelings deeply, but I also can’t help but feel as if I’m the best person to have this conversation with her. Given our history, am I the right person to address it with her? The wrong person? What do you think?
A: I think, given your history, this is not a conversation you ought to be having with her. And if it’s not (yet?) a health concern, you don’t need to worry about appointing someone else to speak to her on your behalf. Tell those mutual friends they should express their concerns to her (gently, supportively, and toward the aim of helping her find a solution) and wish them the best. It’s hard when issues of cleanliness don’t yet rise to the level of requiring outside intervention while still being obviously distressing—I’m sure your friend wishes she could bring people over to her apartment, and it’s clearly a very painful struggle for her, not merely an issue of laziness. But I think this falls under the category of something she needs to figure out for herself, and those other friends might be able to speak to her about it in a way that doesn’t bring up such painful childhood memories and twisted relational dynamics.
Q. Awkward vacation: I have had a rocky relationship with my parents since I came out to them and got married two years ago. In the past when we have made an effort to see them, they have been rude and downright disrespectful to us, particularly to my partner, causing us to avoid family gatherings with them all together.
However, during the past few months, they have been attempting to repair our relationship and have welcomed both me and my partner into their lives. Things are still a bit uncomfortable and conversation can sometimes feel forced, but they have come a long way. They have invited my partner and me on a 10-day international family vacation with them and my brother this September, all expenses paid for by my parents. My partner and I would have our own separate hotel room, would be expected to join the family for daytime activities, and would have the evenings to ourselves to do whatever we please. My partner thinks it will be an awfully awkward 10 days, but am I wrong for wanting to go? We haven’t been able to afford a vacation on our own in almost four years and I won’t lie … a couple of hours of forced conversation and sightseeing a day in exchange for a vacation sounds pretty appealing. What should we do, Prudence?
A: On the one hand, it certainly seems to be a real olive branch on your parents’ side, and that’s nice. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that what they’re offering is just a “couple of hours” of light chitchat a day. Are you sure their idea of daytime activities is really just two or three hours followed by total freedom? Will you and your partner have the energy to go out and explore in the evenings if all day you’ve been having emotionally fraught conversations with your parents? One key here might be your brother—if he’s been useful and supportive in the past, it might make things easier to have him there. If he’s about as tricky to navigate as your parents, then I’d probably recommend against spending 10 days with them in another country.
Q. Re: Separating from wife: Just a thought: Past experience from friends in similar situations report it could be about the money. She wants to be “friends,” get her alimony, and not feel guilty. Don’t make any hasty decisions, get through the two months, and go from there. Maybe get some good legal advice as well.
A: I had not even thought about that. Thank you. I think it’s possible for divorcing spouses to be friends, but I’d treat her request with a fair amount of suspicion, given the circumstances. Even if money’s not a dynamic (she may earn more than he does, etc.) it could simply be that the request to stay “best friends” has more to do with assuaging her guilt than an actual desire to remain close. I don’t know a lot of best friends who’ve cheated on one another. Civil exes, maybe, but not best friends. And agreed that the letter writer should see a good lawyer.
Q. Re: When should we resolve arguments? My spouse and I have a similar dynamic! We have found ways to make it work for more than 30 years. Tell your boyfriend you want to give him time and you respect the way in which he needs to deal with conflict. Tell him you care about him and it’s hard for you to let things go unresolved for an indeterminate amount of time. Suggest a compromise: “Can I call you tomorrow at such-and-such o’clock so we can check in with each other?”
A: Yeah, asking for either a mutually agreed-upon time to resolve an argument can go a long way toward resolving anxiety, and if your boyfriend is able to do that, I think it’s a good sign that you two can find ways to improve this dynamic, even if it remains part of your long-term pattern as a couple. And if he’s able to say something brief but loving, even better; I think it’s good to reaffirm one’s love and compassion even in the middle of an argument.
Q. Response to this week’s column: I’m a geriatrician (an MD specializing in the elderly) and the last letter (Dark Epiphany) raised a number of red flags about her father’s medical condition. What she’s describing is very concerning for a new presentation of dementia. It’s a common story that when an older person who has some risk factors for dementia gets sick and is admitted to the hospital, that episode “tips them over the edge”—whatever compensatory mechanisms were left fail, and the dementia is revealed by the illness. He could have also had a stroke while hospitalized. The new short-term memory loss is particularly alarming, and he needs an evaluation ASAP. Many surgeons do not have the expertise to diagnose dementia. I would strongly encourage the letter writer and/or her mother to get her father to see a clinician who specializes in cognitive evaluations. This could be a geriatrician, neurologist, neuropsychologist, or psychiatrist with geriatric expertise. Please share this—I appreciate it.
A: That’s really helpful, thank you—if memory serves, I had mentioned the possibility of a medical condition underlying the sudden change, but it’s good to know more about the specific ways dementia can manifest in a patient after hospitalization so the letter writer can seek out more specialized treatment.
Q. My husband shot the neighbor’s dog: We live out in the country and have always had a problem with people abandoning their dogs and them turning feral. We raise goats and chickens and have lost livestock to them. The problem has gotten worse as city folk move in and proceed to do nothing but bitch about country life (no, we can’t make our rooster crow at a later time—he doesn’t have a snooze button). Our new neighbor down the road lets his kids and dogs roam over everything without a care, even letting his 8-year-old daughter into the pasture where we had a horse who likes to kick.
Last week, my husband shot and killed two dogs that got into our chicken coop. Yesterday I saw the missing pet posters on a tree by the turn off. It matched. My husband doesn’t think anything good could come from telling the owner, considering how little care he gives to his kids and animals. He thinks we should lie and say we haven’t have seen the dogs—only coyotes. Animal control is a joke, and going to the sheriff is bound to kick this up to a feud—I don’t know what to do.
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