Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My husband’s ex won’t leave: When I met my husband 10 years ago, he had been divorced for two years. “Lindy” turned into a party girl after their divorce. Never around for the kids and very flaky. We have custody of their two children. Lindy was out of the picture for years, but she reemerged and texted my husband. She says she’s changed her focus in life and is getting herself together. She told my husband that she’s moving to Australia to start a new job and new healthy life. A few weeks later, I come home from work and find Lindy in my house having a glass of wine. My husband took me aside and told me that Lindy will be staying in our guest room for three weeks. He said her lease was up and this arrangement is temporary, and it will help her to save money until she leaves for Australia. I was upset that he didn’t consult me on it, but I let it go.
It’s now three months later and Lindy’s “job” keeps getting pushed back. I don’t think it ever existed. The worst part is I feel totally pushed out of my own family. My husband works from home so he is hanging around all day with his ex. I come home from work to find my husband sitting down with Lindy (and sometimes the kids), having dinner that she made, laughing at their old jokes, and having a wonderful time. Lindy also does my husband’s laundry, then says, “You are so busy. I don’t mind.” But I do! My stepdaughter has always had a picture of her mom in her bedroom, which is fine with me, but now it’s in our living room! And the last straw—I came home and found my husband in bed reading, as Lindy was organizing our closet! “It’s such a mess. Let me help.” My skin crawls at the thought of her looking through all my things.
I’ve spoken to my husband and he says it’s cute that I’m being jealous. He also said that he’s not going to put the mother of his children out on the street, nor pay for a motel. I want her out of my life and my husband and stepkids back, and my husband is doing nothing about it. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on, and I’m thinking that’s what she wants—to slip into my life as I slam the door behind me. Help, please.
A: I don’t know whether your marriage will survive this, but please don’t force yourself to stay just because you don’t want Lindy to “win.” Yes, it would be painful to leave feeling like she was smiling at having driven you out—but how much worse to stay in a marriage where your husband has already absented himself from you emotionally just because you don’t want to leave the two of them alone? I think you should start seeing a therapist. (If you can find a couples counselor and your husband is willing to go, fantastic; if he’s not, I want you to see someone yourself.) I also think you should tell your husband that this is a serious, marriage-threatening issue and that you need to be able to talk about it with him, in private, without Lindy present, to figure out whether he has any plans to live without her ever again. She’s been living with you for three months and he’s called your request to discuss the issue “cute”—that suggests he’s either unaware of or indifferent to how this has been affecting your marriage.
It’s also possible that they are already sleeping together; I don’t think it’s paranoid at this point to ask him point-blank, although you may not be inclined to trust whatever answer he gives you. Focus on what you need to make this marriage workable. If your husband isn’t able to listen to you or meet you halfway, then I want you to be able to leave and start rebuilding your life, not to force yourself to stay in a house with a rival who treats you with contempt out of fear that she’ll win if you go.
Q. Childhood trauma: My daughter is 11½. She recently got written up at school for being caught holding hands and kissing another girl on a field trip. I have explained to her that she is in absolutely no trouble at school or home for whom she was kissing, but rather for that behavior being completely inappropriate for a school trip, no matter who it is. What I don’t know how to handle is the fallout at school. It spread through her school like wildfire and kids are merciless. She’s always been a quiet kid, never in any trouble, very few friends. She’s upset everyday about going back to school, where everyone is talking about what happened. I can’t have her change schools or anything but short of telling her to ignore these kids (and sadly, honestly, adults too I’m sure). I don’t know how to help her deal with what’s happening.
A: I think one way to help her with what’s happening is to apologize for your initial response. It hasn’t been that long since I was 11 and going on class trips—it wasn’t at all unusual for nascent tween couples to hold hands or even, occasionally, to kiss, and we all still managed to learn something about zoos or whatever historical home we were touring at the time. If memory serves, there were more than a few straight couples in eighth grade who parked in front of each other’s locker in between classes and made out furiously, and the most that ever happened was that a hall monitor told them to knock it off and get to homeroom. Junior high–aged kids develop crushes, hold hands, start and end entire relationships between passing periods on school campus. I can understand if a teacher had told them to pay attention to the tour guide if they were lost in their own little world, but the school was way out of line to write her up for giving her girlfriend a peck, and my strong suspicion is that no one would be responding this heavily if she’d held hands with a little boy. You were in the wrong for backing the school’s line and telling her that holding hands with the girl she liked while wandering around an aquarium or whatever was “inappropriate.” You may be doing it more kindly than the kids at school, but you’re very much part of the problem here, where children exploring age-appropriate but nonstraight feelings are subject to way harsher scrutiny than their peers. After you apologize to your daughter, I think you should go to bat for her. Set up a meeting with the school administration and ask what they’re doing to identify and write up the kids who are subjecting her to homophobic harassment. Surely that’s more disruptive than a little innocent hand-holding.
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Q. Don’t believe in Dogmen: I’m 61 and my cousin is 62. We met when we were 4 and 5 (we lived in another country) and have been more like sisters since then. Even with cross-country moves, marriages, and kids, we stay in touch. She really is one of my closest friends, and we are always there for each other during hard times. She is going through a hard time now and I have no clue as to what to do. She is in an unhappy marriage (third one, no kids), and her husband is a workaholic who is never home. Since retiring, she’s been home alone, a lot, and she has way too much time to think. Here it comes: She thinks she has Bigfoot and Dogmen creatures in the woods around her house. Families even, with little ones. She has shown me “pictures” she took. (I didn’t see a thing besides trees.) She is adamant they are there, and unfortunately there are quack audio and YouTube “shows” that back up her theories. She is scared of them and keeps her shades drawn and doors locked all the time at home. When she first shared these thoughts with me, six months ago, I tried to reason with her but got nowhere. Now I just say “hmmm” and change the subject if she brings them up. I researched dementia with hallucinations, but she isn’t showing any other signs or symptoms. She drives, shops, attends church—everything else in her life is typical. How can I suggest she get a physical and mental evaluation without alienating my oldest friend? I’m pretty sure she’d see it as a betrayal, and it would break her heart. Any advice?
A: I think your strategy of saying “hmmm” and changing the subject is a perfectly sound one.
Lots of people have odd, superstitious beliefs about cryptids and aliens and UFOs and so on, without necessarily becoming delusional or hallucinating. It sounds like your friend has a very real, although not life-threatening problem—what to do with herself and her free-floating anxieties about being a woman alone in the house most of the time—and a slightly goofy cover for it. It might be that it feels a little easier to admit she’s nervous about Bigfoot than to admit her third marriage isn’t really working out, or that she’s worried about home invasion. Given that it doesn’t affect how she functions overall, and she still has an active social life, I think you can relax your guard.
Q. Is there a way to experiment ethically? I’m in my early 20s and still not sure of my sexuality. I never felt a strong urge to date, so my first real relationship was last year, with a guy. (I’m female.) Now I’m single and less sure of my sexuality than ever, but I feel like I’ve passed the appropriate time frame for sexual exploration. Lately I feel that I’d like to try dating other women, but it feels wrong to entangle someone in a relationship, or even a fling, when I’m not sure what or whom I want. I’d feel like I was using them to evaluate my sexuality. Not to mention I don’t know that I’d be a suitable partner anyway since I’m not ready to define my sexuality, let alone be out. Is there a way to explore my sexuality without feeling like I’m exploiting someone?
A: Yes! You can start by relieving yourself of the disproportionate burden you’ve placed on the part of you that wants to go out with women. The whole point of going on a date with someone is to figure out whether the two of you have a romantic spark—you don’t know until you go. Sure, some dates start out with a stronger sense of chemistry than others, but it’s a mutually agreed-upon experiment, not something you trick people into giving you. What you call “using [someone] to evaluate my sexuality” I call “going on a date to see if there’s chemistry.” You are allowed to date women without first establishing concretely the exact boundaries of your sexual orientation. Many women do, as a matter of fact; you may very well end up on a date with another woman who is equally unsure of herself and you might even bond over your shared—if unwarranted—fear.
“Oh, I was afraid I might be exploiting you!”
Followed by relieved laughter and another round, etc. I promise you, if you find a woman—or women—whom you want to date, and you go at a pace that feels comfortable to you, if you’re honest about what you want and what you’re ready for, you will neither trick nor entangle anyone into anything. Don’t worry about what kind of partner you might be before you’ve even gone out on a single date. Right now all you have to worry about is what you want to wear on a first date and who are some women you might like to ask out. Good luck!
Q. Not an object of pity: I am a straight cis woman in my early 30s. I have a great life: wonderful career, great friends. I give back to my community. I haven’t met “the one” yet, but I’ve realized that I can’t force that and instead choose to enjoy dating. Well, this past weekend, I was at the wedding of a childhood family friend when one of my mother’s best friends sidled up to me and asked why I thought I “hadn’t met someone special yet.” Prudie, I was humiliated! In the moment, I told this friend (whom I used to see as an honorary aunt, by the way!) that I knew she meant well but found the question inappropriate and insulting. She said she meant well, because I was clearly such a catch, and listed all my good qualities—but that made me feel worse! My parents’ friend’s kids are all married, and now I worry that one of my deepest fears is true: that people who have known me my whole life see me as a freak for being single or wonder what’s secretly wrong with me. I know my parents are eager for me to find someone, and now I worry they share these sentiments. I am embarrassed and resentful, and I do not want to be around my mom’s best friend. How do I move forward?
A: It’s a totally insulting question! I absolutely believe that this woman cares deeply about you, and probably in that moment she thought she was being solicitous, but it’s a terrible question and she shouldn’t have asked it. As you say, part of its terrible-ness is the way in which it swiftly demolishes everything else good or meaningful in your life just because you’re not partnered; the other part is because it forces you to explain why you think no one wants to marry you! If anyone reading this still thinks that question is complimentary (“because it points out how freakish and bizarre your singleness is, since I think you’re a worthwhile person, and all worthwhile people end up married”), please knock it off.
Q. Bad hostess: Two friends were coming to visit for the weekend, arriving Friday after work and leaving sometime Sunday. As with all visitors, I planned to put them on an air mattress in the living room. Not a perfect solution, but it’s the city and I have roommates and no guest space. (Literally: Downstairs is bedrooms/bathrooms, while upstairs is one big open-concept living area.)
Their arrival coincided with a barbecue a roommate was hosting for mutual friends. I figured this was fine—good, even. Dinner would be waiting for my visitors (who knew this was the plan) and they could meet some of my local friends without going out, as one visitor doesn’t drink or like bars much.
Their drive took longer than planned, so when they showed up around 8:30 p.m., they were tired and a little grumpy. I offered food, drinks, etc., but they seemed put out by the fact that other people were still there and just sat on the couch on their phones. The barbecue turned into drinking on the porch and I wasn’t able to set the visitors up to sleep until around midnight. I didn’t feel comfortable asking my roommate’s guests to leave, and I didn’t put my friends in my bedroom because I was being selfish and wanted to sleep there with my (newish at the time) boyfriend. I should have just offered them my room and slept on the couch, but … I didn’t.
I tried to be extra enthusiastic and accommodating the next day, but they were pretty cool and detached through all our activities. Then, when dinner plans went slightly askew (i.e., the restaurant couldn’t seat us an hour before our reservation because they weren’t open for service yet), they decided to just drive back home then and there. It was weird and I was annoyed, then I felt guilty, then hurt. It’s been eight-plus months and things are still strained. It feels like too much time has passed to talk it through and they never brought it up, so I’m left wondering: Am I a bad hostess?
A: You told your friends that they’d be arriving in the middle of a barbecue; they arrived in a bad mood, and rather than trying to make the best of it, they decided to zone out on their phones and then leave early. If you didn’t tell them in advance that they’d be sleeping in the living room, that’s one area you could improve upon in the future, but it doesn’t sound, based on your letter, that you failed to inform them of what they could expect when they arrived. I think they were just grumpy about the traffic and then gave in to their own bad moods. Yes, it would have been polite, once you realized the party was lingering a bit later than you thought, to offer your clearly tired guests your room, but I don’t think you were wrong not to.
Mostly, I think it’s been eight months and the worst thing that happened to your friends is that they went to sleep a little late on a Friday night. They’re fine! No one was actually harmed. If they were miffed, they’ve had plenty of time to lick their wounds. I think it’s best to say something now, rather than continually wonder whether you’re a bad hostess: “Hey, I feel a little strange mentioning this now, since it’s been eight months, but I’ve noticed a real distance ever since your last visit, and I’m hoping we can move past this. I know things didn’t go the way we’d hoped, but I’d love to put it behind us. Is there anything that you really want to say about it? Can we forgive one another and move on? I’d like that more than anything.”
Q. (Maybe) accidentally outed friend: I have a high school friend, “Andrea,” who was born a woman and has historically been a proud self-professed lesbian. Lately, she’s been presenting in a more masculine way. That’s fine: We’re young, and we’re all figuring ourselves out. Based on what she’d told me, I thought she might be nonbinary or a trans man, but she hadn’t actually talked to me about her identity or asked me to change anything, so I’ve stuck with Andrea and she/her pronouns. Here’s the problem: My parents mentioned that Andrea looked more like a boy and asked about her gender. I said she was nonbinary because I thought that was a safe bet. When my brother asked if she was still a lesbian, I said yes, since as far as I knew she was. He was confused, I told him not to overthink it. But then my dad was confused so I had to explain what nonbinary was, and it turned into a whole discussion that wasn’t really about Andrea but was kind of exhausting.
I decided I’d ask Andrea or another friend about how to explain gender better to my family later. But that same night she texted me to say that she was feeling upset about her gender and that she didn’t feel like a girl, but she didn’t necessarily want to change how she was addressed because she wasn’t out yet. I had no idea she wasn’t out yet, and I may have just outed her to my parents without her knowledge. The way she’d talked about binders and male nicknames so casually and referenced her college friends joking about it made me think she was out already. She presents and refers to her sexuality openly, and I assumed her gender was the same way. I still don’t even know what she identifies as—nonbinary, trans, something else. She didn’t really come out to me as much as reference her gender struggle vaguely as if I already knew what was going on. I don’t, I had assumed, and maybe I outed her. Should I correct my parents and say that I was wrong about Andrea’s gender? Or tell Andrea herself what happened?
A: The most polite and correct answer, when your parents originally said, “We think Andrea looks like a boy. What’s her gender identity?” would have been “I don’t know,” possibly followed by something blandly complimentary of her appearance. Even if your brother or parents had exhibited confusion or pushed you on the issue, it would not have been a problem you needed to solve. If one of your relatives is briefly, dimly confused by someone else’s appearance or gender identity, that’s kind of fine! I think you rushed to resolve that ambiguity because you felt uncomfortable in that moment, not because you had actual information you knew that Andrea wanted you to spread on her behalf. I can certainly understand that being around a group of people who are deeply anxious about someone else’s gender-nonconforming appearance can feel exhausting, but the best thing you could have done in that moment is either to have excused yourself or said, “I don’t feel comfortable talking this much about Andrea’s appearance when she’s not here. Can we talk about something else?”
I wouldn’t tell Andrea about this conversation because my guess is that she’d feel self-conscious and highly scrutinized if she knew your entire family had a conversation based on how she looks. Just go back to your parents and say, “I spoke a little hastily the other day when I said Andrea was nonbinary; I actually don’t know. But I was feeling uncomfortable with the conversation and wanted to draw it to a close. I don’t want to speculate about my friend’s looks or identity anymore, and I hope you can understand and respect that.”
Q. Re: Childhood trauma: Are there rules regarding bullying in the school handbook? Kids don’t always like to report this kind of thing to school authorities, but if she and the other girl are being bullied, speak to the principal, and don’t let them get away with mere lip service.
A: Hopefully there is something specific in the handbook—ideally there’s something about homophobic harassment—that you can point to in your meeting with the principal. I hope you go to bat for your daughter on this one, because right now she’s learning to associate what should be a pretty sweet first kiss with formal punishment, public humiliation, parental alienation, and ongoing harassment.
Q. Re: Childhood trauma: Yikes. Your response was way off the mark, here, and you were way too hard on Mom. It’s inappropriate for middle schoolers to engage in PDA during school functions, no matter what their sexual orientation is. Full stop. Mom sounds supportive of her daughter, and you don’t need to knock her down several pegs for holding reasonable expectations. In the real world, people can’t make out at the copier or hold hands in between staff meetings either.
What Mom needs is some sound advice for how to deal with the school and how to support her daughter through the social alienation she’s experiencing. You’re 100 percent right that she needs to go to the school and make sure it’s enforcing standards evenly, across gender and sexual orientation. Next, she needs to get clear confirmation from the school’s administration and her teachers that they are actively discouraging and punishing bullying and homophobic behavior. If Mom can’t get that clarification, she needs to escalate the situation until she gets that confirmation. Next, she needs to make sure her daughter has access to any support she needs at home, whether it’s a therapist or the support of an LGBTQ+ group at the school or in the greater community, and Mom needs to make sure this girl is surrounded by love and acceptance to counter what she’s experiencing at school.
A: I really disagree! I’m not suggesting that school-sponsored class trips become a group date, and I think it’s fine for a teacher to ask young couples to pay attention to their Air and Space Museum tour guides or even to separate canoodlers, but hand-holding and a single kiss are hardly so disruptive that they require being written up. I think part of the homophobia here—in addition to what the other kids are doing to the letter writer’s kid now—is the outsize response to two little girls kissing. I maintain that it sounded pretty low-key and nondisruptive and got pegged as “inappropriate” because it wasn’t heterosexual. That sort of pursed-lip, visibly uncomfortable, “now’s really not the time or the place” response to nonstraight expressions of affection can, as we see in the rest of that letter, be the kickoff for a number of more obvious, cruel forms of homophobia, and I think it warrants pushback.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week for our class tour of the Museum of Science and Industry.
From How to Do It
Q. I’m a gay guy, and I had sex with my straight roommate: I am the guy who did the stupid thing from a hundred overheated online stories: I slept with my straight roommate when we were both drunk. I am the only gay guy (seemingly!) in a shared house of five guys, and this was very much unplanned. I was totally fine with it, and he acted like he was too, but it’s clear he’s not. A month later, I now hear him having loud sex with women regularly, which I definitely never heard before. He’s not hostile, but he won’t really look me in the eye either. The other roommates have asked me if I’ve noticed him acting strangely. Is it wise to bring this up with him, or should I just let it go? Again, I know I am dumb.