Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Am I dating a yogi who is a not-so-closeted racist? I’ve been dating my partner for about a year and a half. In daily life, he is sweet, sensitive, and focused on healing using massage and yoga, which he kindly teaches me. The problem begins with this: He is 34 and has not lived in a place more than six months since college, with the exception of his parent’s attic in a small, homogeneous Midwestern suburb. He has chronic pain—usually well managed, without substances—mild bouts of depression, and what he describes as repressed sexual trauma. He says this is why he has not been more independent. We met when he was trying to live on his own in another city. His passion is music, which he plays beautifully, except he has also spent a lot of energy throughout the past decade in a band that uses racial slurs, jokes about being gay and coming out, jokes about sexual assault, etc. Both members of the band are heterosexual white men. As a bisexual woman who has experienced shaming and been assaulted, and knows many friends with those experiences, I cannot tolerate the music. He says anyone who doesn’t like it just doesn’t see the humor. I ask him to not bring it up because it triggers me and we end up in weekly arguments. He says it’s artistic and that I’m missing the commentary they’re making about the practice of censorship. I refuse to accept hate speech as a creative tool and admit I steamroll him in these arguments, trying to make him understand why he is so wrong.
I briefly broke up with him over this. Since we got back together, I try to let the music slide, but I don’t want it being made in my space. I think it would hurt most of my friends or people generally and am ashamed of it. Now he is telling me that my “tirades” against his music are the reason he can’t work on his issues in therapy, that I project my trauma onto him, that I am too controlling of his art, preventing him from being himself, making the house unsafe, and that I have reeled him back into a relationship with false promises. I just moved to a new state for grad school, which is why he is here, and I don’t want to kick out the only person I know. I still have a probably foolish hope that he will deconstruct his privilege and understand why hateful music is so harmful. I was hoping time, not having to worry about bills, having space from his past, and being in a more liberal setting would be enough for him to consider changing his perspective on some of his “art,” which he is very proud of. I am instead starting to be the catchall explanation for problems that he struggled with for years before we met. Is it worth one final effort to go to his therapist together, or should I save myself the money and tell him to leave now?
A: Tell him to leave now! Anyone who tries to convince you that it’s your fault they can’t make progress in therapy because you don’t like their lousy band is trying to manipulate you. “Doc, I’d love to spend time working on my trust issues today, but my girlfriend wasn’t a fan of my latest album—you understand why I have to leave.” I don’t mean to make light of what sounds like a fairly frightening situation. Based on your description, it sounds like he’s been fairly successful in isolating you from a lot of your friends because you’re afraid of how they’ll respond to his music. He also seems to be making you feel at least partly responsible for his health, and trying to guilt you into staying with him forever, no matter how badly he treats you or how homophobic and racist his terrible band is. You two fight every week about his refusal to stop singing racist songs “as a joke”—he’s neither sweet nor sensitive. He’s not ever going to change, and he never had any intention of changing. The minute you stop wasting your time and energy on this guy, you’re going to feel like a huge weight has lifted off your shoulders. Kick him out, and start telling your friends just how lonely and anxious and guilty you’ve felt over this jerk for the past year and a half—I think they’ll be pretty surprised at how bad it’s gotten, and they’ll want to help.
Q. Inheritance: My husband and I gave each of our three adult children their “early” inheritance. Twenty grand each. We have college accounts set up for our two grandchildren, but other than sentimental items, we plan to leave everything to a charity dear to our hearts. We have shared this plan with our children. We’re trying to avoid what happened when my father-in-law died: two opposing wills, a permanent breach between brothers, and far too much time spent with lawyers—nothing was left but chaos and heartache.
Our kids had new cars and paid-for college educations; we gave them the best head start we could. But two years after we gave our son his early inheritance, we were shocked and saddened to hear that the money was gone. His wife “invested” in some pyramid scheme, burning through the money we gave and also a large personal loan she had taken out. My son lost his job, and now they are facing bankruptcy but have a garage filled to the brim with crap his wife couldn’t sell or return. My son wants us to bail them out. We have the means to do so if we cash in some of our 401(k), but my husband refuses to. He is raging at the “stupidity” of our daughter-in-law and says if we don’t draw the line now, our children will be hounding us hat in hand for the rest of our lives. He says our son needs to learn to live with the consequences; they can sell their house or both work at Walmart. I understand why my husband feels this way, but I know it took a lot of swallowed pride for my son to come to us. Is there a middle path? As disappointed as I am in my daughter-in-law, they shouldn’t lose their home.
A: I think the middle ground here is not to call your daughter-in-law stupid but not to cash out your own 401(k) and jeopardize your retirement in order to give your son and his wife another transfusion of money that, if the past is any indicator, they will absolutely burn through in another two years. I don’t think the problem is that your son doesn’t have enough access to ready cash; it’s that he and his wife have a history of trying to invest in get-rich-quick schemes and overspending. I think you can offer your son and his wife emotional support, and perhaps offer to set up an appointment with a financial planner so they can prepare for how they’ll deal with bankruptcy. But tell them that if you give them money before they change their relationship with spending and saving, you will in fact not be helping them. If they sell their house and have to move into a slightly smaller apartment, they’re not going to suffer. Encourage them to be honest with each other and themselves and seek professional help, but don’t sacrifice your future stability for their present chaos.
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Q. Me and my imaginary unborn baby thank you: I’m a woman who uses public transportation daily. On a regular basis, people offer me their seats on the train or bus, even when other women are standing closer to them. Most people don’t say why they’re offering, but one woman did ask me directly if I was expecting. I’m not pregnant, and I never have been, but I’m assuming that the seat offers are from people who think I am. My question is: Am I allowed to take the seat offers? Sometimes I’ve taken the seats offered, and my friend says this is wrong because I’m neither pregnant nor disabled. My argument is that I’m being offered a seat without any conditions and would never take it from someone who seemed like they needed it more than I did (i.e., an elderly person). Am I being deceptive, or is it OK to take a seat if it’s freely given?
A: I think that anyone who assumes a stranger is pregnant without being told is being, at best, a little intrusive. If you decide that you would like to take slight advantage of being periodically told, “I think you look pregnant” by sitting down on the subway a little more often than you otherwise would, you are not hurting anyone (especially if you would be willing to give up your seat if someone in obvious need were to board next and no one else volunteered to help). Basically, what these people are saying to you is “I don’t really care to sit down right now—would you like to take this seat?” If you accept, you’re not taking a seat away from someone who “really” needs it.
Q. Do I need to color-code the baby? I have Asperger’s, so sometimes I miss things that are obvious to others. In this case it is whether it actually has any impact on my baby (6 months, still frequently stinky) what color her clothes are. She has dresses in pink and yellow, but she also has jeans and little gray sweaters with dinosaurs or puppies on them. My parents and in-laws, and random people on the street, are deeply distressed by the idea that “people will think she is a boy!” I don’t see why it matters. Why do strangers in the street need to know what she has in her nappy anyhow? She is a baby, a human blob. The only actual point anyone has been able to come up with (other than my mother’s cheerful scenario of someone kidnapping my baby, killing me, and no one knowing that the man is the kidnapper because the police said “little girl” and she is wearing pants that day) when I ask “why” is that she is cute in a dress. This is true, but she is also cute in the little tuxedo T-shirt I bought her, and then I can pretend she is a ventriloquist’s dummy. (I will admit that might be wrong, but it is hysterical.) So is there any actual benefit to color-coding the baby or harm in not doing so? It seems ridiculous that anyone cares what clothes I put on a baby or that they be able to gender her from a distance.
A: I agree that it is ridiculous to be this anxious about a baby who is not color-coded every waking moment; I hope that no one in your life has brought up your being on the spectrum in order to suggest that you’re somehow messing up as a parent by occasionally putting your baby in gray sweatpants. I think we can all comfortably agree that your mother’s maladjusted terror-fantasy of not being able to rescue your baby in the event of a kidnapping is unlikely to ever happen. At the risk of sounding grim, if your baby is kidnapped, the color of her sweatpants is unlikely to be the determining factor in whether or not you ever see her again. Your parents and your in-laws are worrying about a problem that does not exist; also (does it really need to be said?) puppies aren’t all boys. They’re dogs. You’re doing great, and other people’s anxiety when they can’t immediately gender a baby is not your problem to manage
Q. My dearest friend killed herself: My dearest friend killed herself recently in what may have been a cry for help gone wrong. We didn’t find out for several days because the hospital didn’t know whom to contact. I feel that it was partly my fault because I hadn’t contacted her for several months. I could have realized that she was probably feeling alone—she mentioned that she was hardly getting to see her children—but I didn’t. I just assumed that she’d be around whenever I happened to call.
I already struggle with depression and now I’m all over the place. Physically queasy, nervous, self-harming. (I scratch and hit myself.) I think about all the times my friend was there for me and how, even if I couldn’t have prevented her suicide attempt, I could have let her know that she could have called me any time, day or night. I do have a therapist and I plan to tell her what’s happened. The issue right now (if it’s about me at all, which I feel it shouldn’t be) is my partner, who doesn’t seem to understand this kind of spiral. What do I say to them to get them to back off a little bit when I’m struggling to cope with this or that in the moment?
A: I’m so sorry that you lost your friend, and I’m so relieved that you’re seeing a therapist soon. I wish very much that your partner were able to support you right now, and I don’t know exactly what it looks like when they don’t understand your grief or why you need them to back off—my read here is that they try to intervene or otherwise react when they see you in a self-harm cycle but that they’re otherwise supportive of you. If that’s not the case, and if your partner’s approach to this sort of grief is of the “walk it off” variety, then I’d encourage you to spend as little time as possible discussing your grief with them and maximize the time you spend with a therapist and other friends who do understand that you need to talk about what’s hurting you.
But if my first read is the right one, and your problem is that your (generally supporting and loving) partner tries to interrupt you when you’re scratching or hitting yourself, then I think you’re in both a much better and a slightly trickier situation. It’s understandable that your partner might feel distress at the sight of you in a self-harm spiral, but it’s also important that they don’t take on the role of feeling like it’s their responsibility to fix it, especially when it sounds like your life and general well-being aren’t in danger. Has your partner considered seeing a therapist themselves? It might be helpful for both of you to have an outlet right now. It will be important, too, for you to talk to your partner about what is and isn’t helpful when you can feel another self-harm spiral beginning, ask them to consider what they need in terms of distance and space, and to stress both that you’re seeking professional help for your coping strategies and grief and that they’re not going to be able to “fix” you overnight—that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Q. Trans-friendly restrooms at the office: I am a receptionist at a large nonprofit. One of my responsibilities is to order supplies and keep everything in stock. My company provides menstruation products in all of the women’s bathrooms. While this is wonderful, I come to think of the people who menstruate and don’t use the women’s bathroom. I would like to keep a small stock of menstruation products in the cabinets of each of the men’s bathrooms just in case there are any trans employees I am unaware of, or for any future visitors who might need these products. My question is, is this a bad idea? I am not trans, but I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community and I want to be mindful of making places more friendly for people in the community. Am I being unnecessary with my allyship? Am I trying too hard where I don’t need to try? I wanted to ask before I do anything, especially if it might be ultimately hurtful.
A: I think it’s fine—I don’t think it’s an urgent need, exactly but if you’re just talking about stashing a box of tampons or pads in the cabinet in the mens’ room, it’ll take about 45 seconds and then you don’t have to do anything else about it. It’s not as if you’re flagging every employee on their way to the toilet and saying, “Hey, just in case you’re trans, we have products in both bathrooms now.” I don’t think it will hurt anyone; they’re as free as they ever were to decline to use menstrual products they don’t need.
Q. Disability benefits: I am a young woman, and I walk with a cane. Recently, I quit my job, and the other job I had lined up fell through, so I am unemployed. For the past six months, I have been living off my savings and job searching. The problem seems to be my cane. I have a master’s degree in my field, have a very professional appearance (minus the cane), and have been to interview classes and career coaching, yet no one can figure out why I cannot get a job. (Hint: It’s the cane.) Because of a medical condition, I can’t work retail or food service jobs where I’m standing for a long time (the industry I’m looking for jobs in is an office job where we sit all day), so I’m out of luck looking for work there. I’ve applied for administrative and secretarial positions with no luck either. I’ve even tried to be more upfront about the cane with prospective employers, but that just means I don’t even get an interview. I don’t need any special accommodations at work, and my work is in no way affected by my “disability.” Usually I am pretty jokey or sarcastic about it, but this has become extremely frustrating, and I am quickly running out of money. A friend suggested I apply for disability benefits, but this feels icky. Disability benefits are for people who are unable to work, not unable to get hired. I am perfectly capable of working, but I can’t find a job! What do I do?
A: I would welcome hearing from any readers who have had experience working (or being effectively barred from working) while also using a cane, if they have anything to add here. Aside from the obvious note that I think there’s nothing “unprofessional” about a cane, I think you’re being unnecessarily hard on yourself—you’re currently experiencing a lot of plausibly deniable discrimination that keeps you from working despite wanting to. The point of disability benefits are to help people pay rent and other living expenses; I think you have every right to apply for them and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with accessing the help you’re entitled to. It may be that filing for unemployment is your first move, rather than applying for disability benefits, but I think taking whatever help you’re entitled to as you continue to look for work is a good idea.
Q. Friends fishing for wedding invites? I got engaged this spring and am planning a wedding for next summer at my in-laws’ home in a ritzy vacation destination. I have been careful not to talk about the wedding with people who are not going to be invited (we’re trying to keep it reasonably small), but it seems that everyone from home knows about it now. Since that news got out, friends whom I had lost touch with (some for a decade!) have been appearing out of the woodwork to catch up. One whom I was very close with as a small child and have barely been in touch with since high school has invited herself to come visit me this summer. Another keeps calling to catch up after five years of no contact. Am I justified in feeling suspicious that they just want to come to the wedding? Or is it normal to suddenly want to reconnect with friends who have drifted apart when word gets around that they’ve gotten engaged, with no ulterior motive? Is this the price of marrying into the 1 percent–adjacent?
A: I think you are possibly being unnecessarily paranoid! I think it’s more likely that a lot of your friends heard you were getting married and were suddenly reminded of how much time had passed and wanted to reconnect. It’s not at all unusual for people to get in touch over major life events, especially when those events are happy ones, and if the only “fishing” you’ve experienced is “I’d love to visit sometime,” that you don’t need to worry about, yet. Of course, if you don’t want to host this particular friend, you can absolutely say, “We’re not able to host you, but let me know when you’ve found a hotel and let’s find a time to get dinner.” The “price” of marrying into the 1 percent is trying to figure out how to relate to the rest of the world that doesn’t have the same access to financial security and good health care and other advantages without closing yourself off to the suffering of others—not having to fend off old college buddies who want to get a drink and catch up.
Q. Re: Do I need to color-code the baby? I want to be friends with the mom who plays ventriloquist dummy with her baby in a tux T-shirt. That image is going to keep me smiling for days.
A: I found it charming myself! I think the letter writer has a wonderful sense of humor about this problem-that-is-not-actually-a-problem, and I hope they tell their kid about the baby ventriloquist bit when they’re older.
Q. Re: Disability benefits: As a person with a master’s degree who uses a manual wheelchair, I hear you! Entry-level jobs won’t talk to you, and higher-level jobs are skeptical, and if there’s someone without an obvious disability, they will take them first. Seems that the situation is getting worse over time. I too have tried a variety of ways to make light of the situation, and really, nobody understands it enough to get why it’s not a big deal. Collect disability if you can, enjoy the (hopefully brief) vacation, and good luck.
A: Thanks for this. Another reader who works in Social Security disability wrote to add, “The writer will not qualify for benefits if the only reason they’re not working is that they cannot get hired … I’m sympathetic but want the OP to know applying for benefits in this case is likely to be a frustrating and prolonged waste of time,” which is why I think applying for unemployment might be more useful, at least right now. But this is one of the problems with institutional ableism—the letter writer is being screened and punished for her cane use but may have trouble accessing benefits because she’s not “officially” unable to work with her cane. It’s a difficult situation to be in, and I hope she can find a more open-minded employer soon.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
From How to Do It
Q. I’m weirded out by my boyfriend’s porn fetish: My boyfriend and I recently had a casual conversation about our porn preferences, and it was intimate and nice. But one particular preference of his surprised me: He likes cuckold videos. I realize those are pretty common, but I can’t get it out of my head. Does that mean he really wants to do that? Does porn in general align with real-life desires? He does get jealous (and, I guess, turned on by jealousy?), but cuckolding is far beyond what I thought was both of our comfort zones. What should I make of all this?
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