Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Cheater, cheater … awesome fella? For the past six months, my husband has been distant, secretive, and impatient with me while also being in frequent contact with his cousin’s wife. I assumed there was an affair, but it turns out that he was helping her to leave a domestic abuse situation, and she had sworn him to secrecy. They both swear that nothing happened, and I believe them.
The problem is that it doesn’t help. For the past two months, in my head, I’ve been emotionally on my way out the door. I’ve talked to lawyers, investigated my options for rentals closer to work, and been unhappy but ready to leave. Now that I’ve discovered I was wrong about my husband, I still feel ready to go. He doesn’t understand, since he was actually doing a really good thing. Which he was, but at the same time he lied to me and let me feel terrible—and he knew I thought he was cheating—in service of this good thing. In addition to being emotionally divorced already, I’m quite angry too. I know it was for a good cause, but I still feel like he reverse-gaslit me by letting me believe he was a cheater and then doing the “Ha, you misjudged me!” reveal.
My mother and sister think I’m being ridiculous and that he’s a hero. My dad thinks that your spouse’s well-being should come before anyone else’s and I am better off without him. I don’t know. It feels ridiculous to leave someone because you found out they’re not cheating. I know the answer is going to be couples therapy, but I want to know if I’m in the wrong or not before we go in there. I’ve felt “ganged up” on a lot recently, with everyone saying how good a guy my husband is. I mean, he is—but maybe not a great husband?
A: Oddly enough—because this sounds so unique—I answered a question about almost the exact same situation about two years ago on the podcast. You might find that answer helpful. In the meantime I’ll just say that you are entitled to feel hurt and upset about the past six months. You don’t have to determine whether your husband is a hero or not; all you have to do is identify how your experience of the past six months made you feel. Would it really have been impossible for him to say, “I’m helping someone I care about leave a very dangerous situation and I’ve been sworn to secrecy until after they’re out. If it were my story to tell, I’d share it with you in a heartbeat; since I can’t, I just want you to know the broad details so you don’t feel confused or abandoned”? And did helping her really mean that it was appropriate for him to get impatient and distant with you?
I think it’s probably a good idea to spend a little more time with the question of whether you two can repair your marriage before deciding to file for divorce. (You are, of course, allowed to if you want, even if other people in your life disagree—they’re not the ones who are married to him.) But if he can’t acknowledge that you have a right to feel hurt, that he essentially disappeared on you for half a year without a word to reassure you, then that says a lot about his priorities.
Q. A crush on my fiancé’s ex-girlfriend: I’m a 30-year-old bisexual woman, engaged to a man with whom I have a baby boy. Our relationship was amazing from the start, and even though things have changed a little bit since our baby’s arrival and we’re often tired and stressed (our baby is 5 months old and we’re still searching for our “new normal”), we’re both doing the best we can to not neglect our relationship. The thing is, he’s still friends with one of his exes, his first “real girlfriend.” They’re not really close, but they’ve been in the same friend group since high school.
But Prudie, I’ve had some weird feelings since the first time I met her. First of all, we look alike—a lot. I never mentioned this to my fiancé, but the first time I saw her, I immediately felt as though I’m a replacement for her, even though she’s definitely prettier, more fun, and more outgoing than I am. I used to be really jealous of her. And what began as silly jealousy progressively became a sort of crush. I don’t know how that happened. I think when I realized she wasn’t some femme fatale trying to get my fiancé back (this seems really silly now), I just warmed up to her in a way I didn’t expect. Now, whenever we go out with this friend group (which happens once every few months), I find myself wanting to see her, compete with her, and also get her attention. I’m not really friends with her; we’re just vaguely polite to each other. I just like looking at her when she’s there. She’s so pretty and has the personality I wish I had.
I never said anything about this to my fiancé, and I don’t plan to, because that would be very awkward. I also feel I should make it clear that I don’t fantasize about this woman sexually at all. But I feel so weird having this crush. Somehow I feel like I’m “betraying” my fiancé and also objectifying this woman whom I barely know by being so aware of her every time we’re out with this group. Sometimes I’ll even “copy” some things about her (for example, noticing her earrings and buying myself a similar pair).
I feel pathetic and I really wish this would just stop. Is this as weird and inappropriate as I feel it is? I honestly feel like I’m somehow cheating on my fiancé, which is the strangest twist since at the beginning of our relationship I was afraid he would cheat on me with her. Can you help me get some peace of mind?
A: I think this is kind of charming and would encourage you to be a bit easier on yourself! You only see her a few times a year, you don’t go out of your way to establish a deeper intimacy with her or to violate your partner’s trust, and you’re not avoiding him to fantasize about her. You’re experiencing a slightly sexy, slightly painful do-I-want-to-be-like-her-or-do-I-want-to-be-with-her conflict, which is not at all uncommon and doesn’t mean you want to cheat on your partner.
You do not have to tell your fiancé in the sense of unburdening your guilt, but if you ever want to share a little bit about what feelings she brings up for you, I hope you’ll give yourself permission. You might try saying something like this: “This may sound odd, but I’ve had a number of complicated feelings about Sadie—she often makes me feel insecure and fascinated. I used to feel really worried you would prefer her to me, and now there are times I find her so stylish and carefree that I wish I were more like her. Do you know that kind of feeling I mean? Have you ever felt that way about someone else?”
If you were copying her every move, and had adopted her hairstyle and her wardrobe to such an extent that she noticed and felt uncomfortable, that would be one thing, but all you’ve done is score some earrings that you liked and been really hard on yourself for using her as a sort of mental yardstick for the sort of woman you wish you could be. I hope you can be easier on yourself and not accuse yourself of objectifying her just because sometimes you feel hyperaware of exactly what she’s doing and saying when you happen to share a room. These aren’t feelings you have to deny or chase away. Let yourself acknowledge them when they come up—”Right now I feel dazzled and jealous,” or what have you—and allow them to eventually pass. You are not a bad person for experiencing simultaneous admiration, envy, longing, and identification! That’s part of being human.
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Q. Jealous husband, creepy colleague: I’m a man married to another man, and mostly our relationship is wonderful. The issue is that my husband often gets jealous, and in particular this has come to a head with “Tom,” my colleague at work. I used to get on very well with Tom, but he flirted with me a lot, so I cooled toward him. We are in the same friend group at work though, so we see each other a lot.
Next month, we’ve been assigned to go on a trip to Sweden for a conference together: me, Tom, and one other person. I am dreading it. Tom has made a number of jokey comments when we’re out with friends about “getting me drunk” so I’ll sleep with him when we’re there and makes snide remarks about my husband behind my back. (I know this from a friend telling me—the same friend had blown up at him for one of the “drunk” comments, so I think she has my back here and isn’t just spreading gossip.)
My husband won’t stop being unpleasant and upset about the trip, and he keeps acting like I’m going on a romantic getaway. He interprets me saying I’m not remotely interested in Tom as excessive denial to hide my interest. I feel trapped and unable to talk about work to my husband anymore (he will always bring Tom up), and even though this conference will be great for my career (it was a big deal to be selected), I’m considering not going just to avoid Tom. If I do go, I’m planning on not drinking, which is annoying and will provoke stupid comments, but feels worth it for my peace of mind.
What can I do about any of this? I don’t know what to say to my husband to convince him I’m completely faithful, and I wish I could talk to him about my concerns over the Tom thing without it turning into an accusatory conversation. Please advise!
A: I am so worried for you, letter writer, because you’re having to deal with a co-worker who has openly planned to try to get you drunk enough on a work trip so that he can take advantage of you, and your husband apparently considers that infidelity on your part, rather than sexual harassment on Tom’s! When it comes to work, I think it’s time to tell Tom he needs to stop making those comments, then talk to your own supervisor and HR about rearranging the trip so you don’t have to travel with him. When it comes to your husband, all I think you need to say is this: “Tom is sexually harassing me and I’m afraid of what he might do to get what he wants. I need your support, not your jealousy.” If he can’t pretty quickly get it together, heartily apologize, and ask how he can help you, then you’ve just learned something pretty sad about your husband. I’m so sorry this is happening to you, and I hope you can get the help at work you need. (I also hope Tom gets fired for this!)
Q. Not into hugging: I am about to return to work from maternity leave, and, besides being away from my child, the only thing I’m dreading is the hugging. My workplace struggles with professional boundaries. (For example, the executive director insists, “We’re all family here.”) During my pregnancy, I was constantly bombarded with inappropriate comments and attempts at belly touching. Now that I’m returning to work, I’m dreading the hugs. I’m not a big hugger to begin with, and on top of that, my breasts hurt too much from difficult breastfeeding to even hug my husband often. Additionally, many co-workers wear strong perfume that transfers to my clothes when they hug me. I’m still hypersensitive to smells, so this is an added discomfort.
I like my co-workers but not enough to hug any of them. Some of them reacted vocally and dramatically when I requested they not touch my belly, and I’m anticipating a similar level of offense taken when I reject their hugs. Given that many huggers come in to touch me without asking, I’m requesting both a script and any magical physical moves that will protect my bodily autonomy and minimize awkwardness.
A: Oh, how often “We’re all family here,” when delivered by the boss, means: “We like to run roughshod over employees’ personal boundaries and pretend it’s healthy.” I’d welcome suggestions from anyone else who’s had to develop similar scripts! I’d probably go with something like “I’m still recovering physically, so please know if I don’t hug you it’s just because I’m getting back on my feet, not because I’m not happy to see you,” which is sort of a cop-out but should at least spare you a good-natured “Oh, come on.” (I hope none of your co-workers are so lost to propriety that they’d ask, “Why, what happened?”) If you have to deliver that speech while fending off a hug, just put your hand out and prophylactically shake their hands while reciting it. If that feels like more detail than you want to give about childbirth and breastfeeding, you can also pretend to be just a little sick—not so sick that you can’t work, but I think enough people know what little germ carriers young kids can be that they’ll consider it an act of generosity rather than one of distance.
Q. Has my best friend lost her mind? So I have had a close friend, “Clare,” for eight years. We went through our parenting years together, she nannied my kids for a while, we vacationed as families together—basically, we’re as close as sisters. She has always had a not-great marriage, and it’s escalated over the years to mental and emotional abuse. I’ve tried to listen, be supportive, and give helpful advice when I can, knowing that it’s totally up to her to make the right choice—I can’t force her to leave a bad situation.
Two-and-a-half months ago, her husband went through her phone, found that she was texting a guy from her work, flipped out, and lost his mind. He kept her up all night screaming at her and badgering her to admit if she was having an affair. (She was not having an affair, by the way.) When she fell asleep, he went through her phone again and read all of the text messages between Clare and I, screenshotted anything I said that was negative against him, and deleted them all from her phone. Over the next week, she almost left him, then didn’t, then completely stopped calling me. I moved a year ago, so we no longer live in the same city, but I was back in town a week after this happened and texted her to get together, but she never responded. Over the past two-and-a-half months, she stopped calling and only texted a few times, basic texts like “I love and miss you.” I’ve texted her a few times telling her I’m upset that she has cut me off, and I’ve either been ignored or just told that she loves me. I am assuming her husband has full-on isolated her and told her she can’t talk to me. It’s super sad, and I have cried a lot. I know I need to not take it personally.
But here’s the thing. Every few weeks she will text me a photo of the kids or say “I love you.” She told a mutual friend that her marriage was getting better and that she and I were good. Has she lost her mind? We are not good! Every article I read says you should still try to keep the lines of communication open with a friend who is being abused, but I guess I feel stuck. Someone told me this was like going through a horrible breakup, and I think that is true. Any advice?
A: I wonder if these occasional texts are exactly that—an attempt to maintain a line of communication even though it’s not currently safe for her to say anything more than “I love you,” or if she’s not yet ready to try to leave again but wants to know she can call on you if and when she does. I can absolutely appreciate how painful and frustrating this must feel for you, but to whatever extent you’re able, I think you should respond to those periodic texts in kind (“I love you too,” “Here’s a picture from the hike I took last month, miss you,” etc.) and hope that someday she’ll be able to open up a little more and try again. I don’t think she told your mutual friend that you two are “good” because she’s delusional. I think she said that because she didn’t feel safe saying, “My husband is abusing me and if I admit that, I’m afraid he’ll hurt me or the kids.”
Q. Proper response to a stranger judging my eating style? I was famished and realized I had just enough time, barely, to park my car and duck into a burger joint. Their tables are large and shared by the clientele. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, and when it arrived, I almost literally inhaled it—I was hungry, it tasted good, I didn’t have much time. While I was chomping, a young man sitting a few seats away got my attention and asked, “Are you in a hurry?” I said, “Yes, why do you ask?” and he replied, “You’re eating so fast!” This rude interruption completely ruined my experience. I could not think of how to reply other than to ask, “Do I know you?” Was this OK on his part? Was I abnormal to be so bothered? It’s a low-formality restaurant, so complaining to the staff was not an option.
A: I think that response is fine! It doesn’t seem like that situation is likely to repeat itself, but you were in a rush at a low-formality restaurant and did what you had to do to get through your day. I wouldn’t worry about how you handled it.
Q. Not invited: My stepsisters and their children don’t invite me to family events. I’m not given a heads-up about family get-togethers. This really hurts because I have tried to be there for my stepsisters, their kids, and my dad and stepmom. I’ve invited everyone to my home and tried to keep up. But I feel left out, and it’s gotten worse over the past several years. For example, my stepnephew is getting married this summer, and I wasn’t invited. And last Thanksgiving I scheduled travel plans around the regular celebration date, but they changed it without telling me. I haven’t said anything, but it makes me feel like I’m not part of the family. I’ve always been cordial with my stepsisters and was close with my nephews before they became moody teens. Any advice on how to get my family to include me? I love and value them and have no clue what to do to be valued in return.
A: I think it’s time to say something! Clearly they’re not picking up on your careful attempts to include them, so I think the time has come to have a conversation. You should, I think, be prepared to hear something either evasive or potentially painful. Leave the wedding out of it, I think, because it’s always possible that their budget didn’t allow for many guests, but ask one of your stepsisters if you two can get together and compare schedules for upcoming family events because you’ve missed out on a few of the last get-togethers and it would mean a lot to you to be invited. Do it with each of them in turn; if it feels appropriate, you might ask if you’ve done anything to upset or alienate them that you could potentially make amends for.
I hope this works; you sound like a conscientious person who cares about staying in touch with family, and I hope your relatives can come to appreciate you better. If it doesn’t, and even after you’ve told them how much this matters to you they continue to leave you out, then I hope you can share your hurt and rejection with friends or a therapist or both.
Q. Re: A crush on my fiancé’s ex-girlfriend: I’ve been in this exact same situation! The letter writer is at a weird social distance where the other girl’s coolness is very visible but her flaws and shortcomings and insecurities are not. In my case, one night while drinking, the girl blurted out that she’s always been jealous of my career and stable life and felt I was the successful version of her that “had gotten her shit together.” Meanwhile, I was coveting her fun and freewheeling life and thought she was the artistic version of me that “didn’t sell out.” What a revelation! Now we’re friends, and I see her as just a person like me, not a concept or a mysterious Goddess of Cool.
A: I’m so glad things worked out that way for you! I think that, even if the letter writer and her partner’s ex don’t end up bonding and becoming close after this, it’s really helpful to remember that she only sees the coolest, most put-together sides of her persona a few times a year. You don’t get to see her when she’s tired and overworked, or when she’s stressed out and self-doubting—just the earrings and the sparkling cocktail-party conversation.
Q. Re: Cheater, cheater … awesome fella?: I think it’s important for the letter writer to remember that what he was actually doing the past six months is pretty irrelevant to the question. No one has to cheat for a divorce to be an option. And helping a third party is not the basis for a marriage. The question is the current relationship between these two people, and she sounds pretty checked out. Which is fine! Although there’s plenty of reason to believe he wasn’t taking care of their relationship, no one has to be at fault in ending a relationship. Of course counseling is always an option if she really wants to try to keep the marriage together, but it doesn’t really sound like she does.
A: Right, it can be true that he both helped his cousin’s wife out of a dangerous situation and that he treated his own marriage carelessly and without consideration for his wife’s feelings throughout. He doesn’t have to be an objectively Bad Dude for the letter writer to consider leaving—just a bad husband. And unless the letter writer had given him reason to think she couldn’t keep a secret, I don’t think he did the right thing by keeping everything from her. Just because he was doing a good thing doesn’t mean he went about it in a good way, at least not where his wife was concerned.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you next week.
From How to Do It
Q. I think my wife tried to trick me into gay sex: My wife is bisexual, and I’ve always been cool with her playing with other women, and sometimes other guys—we have plenty of sex, so I know it’s not about me. I’m usually a one-woman kind of guy myself, but recently we had a couple over socially and things got a little heated. My wife and the woman had fooled around before, but never with her boyfriend. I sort of figured we’d just watch, but then the guy put his hand on my thigh. I wasn’t really sure how to respond—I’ve never been with a guy and don’t think I’m interested—so I just left the room. My wife was a little upset; she felt I was too closed off to experimentation. But shouldn’t this kind of thing happen with lots of communication? I sort of suspect she and the other couple intended things to go in this direction, and I’m the only one who didn’t know. We have a pretty conservative background and our relationship is very unconventional in our world, so I’m not really sure of the ground rules. What should I do, in this instance and in potential future ones?
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