Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Hello, everyone! We’ve got a brand-new batch of problems today; hope you’re full of fiber and resolve.
Q. Ethical breakups: My boyfriend, “Peter,” wants to break up with me. Obviously that’s his right, I know that, but it feels like I’m actually being irresponsible by just leaving. Peter has always had an interest in the paranormal and things like that. So do I, although I prefer M.R. James to actual, real-life creepy places. Over the past six months, however, Peter has moved further left of the socially accepted idea of normal. He’s become convinced that I’m the reincarnation of an evil witch. And sure, maybe he just thinks I’m an evil witch and wants an excuse to dump me. I’d actually be relieved if that were true, to be honest. Peter really seems to believe that I’m an evil soul, though, and is quite sad over this.
I just don’t know how to navigate this breakup ethically and respectfully. He’s not violent or a risk to himself, and there are plenty of worse conspiracy theories out there. On the other hand, he also wants to end a three-year relationship because he’s realized he’s dating an evil spirit. That doesn’t seem like the decision of a healthy psyche, and this has all just happened in a relatively short space of time. He doesn’t talk to his family—he’s always said they were weirdly religious, which seems relevant now—and he’s distanced himself from his old friends so he could find ones with the same interests. Right now it feels like I’m the only person in his life with a healthy dose of skepticism, and that it would be irresponsible to just … leave for saner pastures. But he’s a grown man and he doesn’t want me around anymore (since I am apparently unconsciously feeding on his purity), so is there anything I can do? He’s obviously not inclined to take my evil-inspired advice right now.
A: There is a complicated gray area in between “totally unreasonable/baffling but part of the rich tapestry of human weirdness” and “deeply concerning, time to call a doctor,” and I’m afraid this might fall into it. Certainly I don’t think you should stay in a relationship just because you’re afraid you’re the only tether a person has left to sanity—that’s not a reasonable or healthy burden to place on yourself. If you want to try to remain even distantly connected so that you can periodically check in and potentially try to intervene if or when his delusions do strike you as more worrying, then I think that’s worth doing. But I think this romantic relationship is clearly over, and to whatever degree you’ll be able to remain in his life, it’ll be as someone who cares deeply about his well-being and wants him to maintain a strong grip on reality. I think the best thing you can do now is accept that this relationship is over.
I don’t want to say that just because he’s fallen prey to a conspiracy theory/is experiencing what sounds like delusional thinking, you are necessarily in danger, but I do hope that if he ever escalates from “You’re an evil spirit” to “You’re an evil spirit, and it’s my responsibility to get rid of evil spirits,” you’ll already be far away and well-protected. To that end, I think you should make sure that you’re not alone with him right now. I know you say he’s not violent or a risk to anyone, and I’ll take your word on that. I’m not suggesting you need to call the police or put him in a psychiatric hold—I don’t think that would do him much good. But if he ever does start offering threats, please prioritize your safety.
Q. Not a dog person: My sister-in-law has a dog. She thinks the dog should go everywhere she goes. My husband and I and our two small children live in a rental. Our landlord does not allow dogs, so we’ve told her she cannot bring her dog to our house when she visits. Her dog has also been known to growl at our children, and our children are afraid of the dog. Since she lives two hours away, she wants to spend the night when she visits. But Doggie can’t be alone that long (and apparently cannot be boarded either for some unknown reason), so she and my mother-in-law constantly inform us that we’re making things difficult because we won’t allow the dog in our house. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say she cannot bring her dog. What do you think?
A: The landlord here is such a gift! “Sorry, but our landlord is really strict. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about it!” Whenever she or your mother-in-law wants to lay her troubles at your feet, adopt an attitude of bland sympathy and absolute powerlessness: “Oh, man, that is tricky! What do you think you’ll do about it?” Just don’t go so far as to say “I wish there was something I could do to help,” because I have no doubt she’ll take you up on that and ask you to help pay for a pet-friendly hotel room or pretend her dog is a very furry child and sneak him in past your landlord.
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Q. Who’s disgusting? My girlfriend, “Heather,” and I have been going out for a year. She recently suggested we spice things up with some kink, and had a specific sex act that she wanted to try. It wasn’t anything I had strong feelings for one way or another, so I figured I’d go along and we could try something I was more into next time. We did it. At the time it seemed like she was pretty happy with the events of the night.
A couple of days later I mentioned it to her, and she called me disgusting. She said that she couldn’t believe I’d ask her to do something like that, and she’s angry I pressured her into agreeing to it. She’s referenced her disgust at me a couple of times since then, and implied I must have some weird traumatic background to be into this. I’ve questioned her rewriting history twice; each time she blew up at the accusation she’d ever do anything like that and then stormed out to spend the night with a friend.
I don’t know what to make of this. It was her idea and her fantasy. If she just didn’t want to do it again, she could just tell me instead of calling me disgusting for something she asked me to do. Or even not tell me and just never bring it up again. I’m quite irritated at the constant “you pig” accusations, to be honest, and I’m also confused as to why she’s doing this. I don’t know if I should agree that I was gross and would never ask again, argue with her, or be concerned she’s not entirely in touch with reality.
A: It’s possible, though unlikely based on what you’ve described here, that there’s something about the way you fulfilled her request that troubled her. Maybe she’d anticipated more frequent check-ins during sex, or a different kind of tone, or any number of other things. So if you want to give clearing the air another shot, you might ask her if there was something you said or did that night that surprised or upset her, because you thought things had gone really well and don’t understand what changed.
But what this really sounds like is that she’s having trouble acknowledging her own desires and shame at the same time, and wants to try to offload that turmoil onto you by making you responsible for the situation she orchestrated. It’s a weird version of the Groucho Marx “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member” bit; she’s uncomfortable with her own kinks, but instead of sitting with and trying to work through that discomfort, it’s easier to say that you’re the freak for being willing to go along with her request. The fact that she’s blown up and gotten hyperdefensive whenever you’ve tried to acknowledge reality suggests that the real problem for her is integrating the part of herself that wants things she’s embarrassed by, or ashamed of, or thinks of as categorically bad. (Claiming that the only reason someone might want to participate in kink is because they’ve been traumatized or abused is also pretty cruel and out of line!)
You can’t force her to look within and embrace her shame, obviously, but you can make it really clear that she’s hurt you and that you need to draw a boundary to protect yourself: “I’m always happy to talk about any feelings we have about our sex life—what we want, what we’ve tried and didn’t like, what we’re afraid of, what we’re embarrassed by—but you violated my trust by asking me to do _____ with you and then afterward claiming it was my idea and that there must be something wrong with me for wanting to do it. There’s not something wrong with me. I’m not going to do ____ with you again.”
You might also want to check in with yourself here. Do you feel comfortable having sex with her at all right now? Are you worried she’s going to lash out at you again? Do you need to draw a stricter boundary around intimacy than just leaving that particular act alone? Can you see yourself having a future with her if she continues to blame you for her inner conflict about sex? Don’t let your compassion for whatever conflict she may be experiencing override the fact that you should prioritize yourself right now. The way she’s handling her feelings is more than just “irritating”; she’s lying about what happened between the two of you, and she’s strongly suggesting that you’re sexually damaged and coercive. This is really dark, and I don’t know that you can trust her.
Q. Annoyed groomswoman: My brother is marrying a younger woman. She is a classic narcissist: selfish, abusive, and dysfunctional, not to mention has been caught cheating more than once and lied to my brother, claiming the evidence he came across wasn’t real. My brother has attachment and anxiety disorders, leaving him ripe for the picking to a woman who wants to be domineering.
My sister and I are extremely close with him and have tried to be there for him. But he loves her and is marrying her despite us trying to support him to break it off and move on. We recognize there is nothing we can do at this point if we want to have any sort of relationship with him ever (she has threatened to cut us out before when she was caught cheating and we begged him to come live with one of us). The wedding is happening later this year, and initially we were not asked to be a part of it and were kind of relieved. Fast forward to last week when my brother surprised us both and said he put his foot down, and he isn’t getting married without his two sisters by his side. So we are groomswomen, and my brother asked us to wear “men’s” attire, which we love the idea of!
Well, his bride-to-be is (so far politely) asking us to wear bridesmaid dresses too. My sister and I don’t want to. We aren’t bridesmaids, we are standing with our brother, and to be honest the dresses she picked are hideous, cheap, and unflattering to any figure or shape. I have yet to bring this up to my brother, and I’m sure he’ll stick to our original plan and take our side, but do I really want to pick a fight this early in the planning process? Do I have any rights here? I honestly hate the dress and the bride so much I’m willing to bow out over it, but I don’t want to upset my brother. What is the mature thing to do?
A: In the long run, I think some sort of showdown with your soon-to-be sister-in-law is probably inevitable, and my guess is that even during the wedding planning, no matter how hard you try to be accommodating of her whims, she’ll find a reason to blow up at the two of you. I think it’s admirable you’re trying to stay involved in the wedding party for your brother’s sake! To whatever extent that’s possible, I hope you can. The nice thing about being on the groom’s side is that you can claim outfits are his jurisdiction, so when she recommends bridesmaid dresses (the “too” part of that threw me—is she asking you for an outfit change partway through the ceremony? A half-suit, half-dress look? Is she asking you to throw over the suits for the dresses?), you can politely say, “Oh, [Brother]’s already asked us to wear suits—you’ll have to talk with him about that,” if you’re relatively sure this is the one thing he’ll hold his ground on. But I’d be prepared to politely rebuff a lot of unreasonable requests from her as long as you’re part of the wedding. Good luck!
Q. My house: My husband and I are moving into our first home, but my mother thinks it is hers. She keeps buying me random “contemporary” clutter that doesn’t fit our color scheme or our lives (we don’t need all-matching dishware and pots and pans). I have told her we don’t need anything and have returned the items she has given me. She acts hurt I don’t like her “gifts,” despite me telling her we don’t need or want them. She ignores things we actually do need (like plants for the garden). She harps on whatever choice we make (“Why have a game room when it would make a good nursery?”). It is getting to the point I don’t want to talk to her or have her in my home
A: The good news, I think, is that you’re at the point where you’re willing to stop inviting your mother over, which means you don’t have much to lose and can start in a strong bargaining position. (The other good news is that you’re able to buy a home—congratulations!) You’ve been fairly clear with her so far, returning gifts you’ve told her in advance you don’t want, and so I have faith you’ll be able to handle the next phase well.
But you also say that you don’t need anything at the start of your letter, and that you do need things like plants for the garden later on. So I think it’s worth clarifying whether you want her to stop getting you presents altogether, or whether you want to try to channel her gift-giving energy into more specific areas. “Mom, I get that you’re excited about us moving into our first home. We’re excited too. We want you to be able to share in our excitement, but we’re not looking for advice or second-guessing whether or not we want a nursery. We don’t want a nursery. Please stop getting us gifts we don’t need. I hate for you to waste your time and energy doing that when you know we’ll have to return it. Let’s find another way to connect over the house—or, if we can’t, let’s find something else to talk about.” If she proves absolutely unwilling to budge, then at that point you might have to start saying, “Let me know when you’re able to talk about something else; I’d be happy to get together then, but not before.”
Q. Coming-out confusion: I have recently realized that I’m trans, and am now facing the prospect of coming out to basically everyone I know (I’ve already told a few of my closest friends that I’m questioning my gender). As I look toward coming out on a larger scale, I’m wondering how to navigate coming out to many people within a hopefully short time frame. I feel like I have a handle on how to break the news to my close family and friends, but what about my more casual friends? I’m planning on eventually doing a public Facebook announcement, and I don’t want to blindside anyone with that, but I also don’t want to have an individual conversation with every single person I’ve been friends with. Is it ever OK to announce this kind of thing in a group text? And what do I do about people who I used to be close to but no longer am? It feels like not telling them prior to posting publicly would be an overt “we’re not friends anymore” declaration, but I also don’t want to have this conversation constantly! I know I’m definitely overthinking this, and any guidelines/thoughts would be much appreciated!
A: I don’t think anyone who truly cares about you, even if it’s only in a distant sort of way, would take your coming-out post as signs that you were no longer friends, any more than they might if you were announcing a new job or a new romantic relationship. They’d understand that the only people privy to the information-gathering and decision-making process beforehand would be people you’re quite close to. Not everyone is as polite and courteous about transition as they are about new job announcements, unfortunately, but it sounds like your friends are generally respectful and have a history of reasonable behavior, which is a good sign. You might even consider including a sentence in your eventual public announcement about this anxiety: “I thought about the merits of making a public post, and I eventually decided this was the best way to do it, rather than having a hundred versions of the same conversation. But this is something I want you all to know about me, and if you’re seeing this, it’s because I consider you a friend,” etc.
For your more general question—is it OK to come out via group chat, social post, etc.—I think it’s fine, especially since you’re planning on coming out in person to your closest friends and family. It’s pretty customary to make similar announcements in the same format, so you’re not establishing anything new or untried, and it’s for the very reason you’ve pointed out. It’s exhausting to say “I’m engaged” or “I’m transitioning” or “I’m moving for a new job” to everyone in your life, especially when you have to do it quickly before word starts to spread ahead of you. And when it comes to being “blindsided,” I think that’s kind of a red herring? Deciding to transition or figuring out your gender identity are pretty specific, internal things, and if you pressured yourself to make sure you’d dropped enough hints so that everyone in your life saw this coming, you might waste years. Everyone’s interior experience is sort of a mystery to everybody else, and I don’t want you to take on additional pressure by worrying, “Am I presenting myself as a believable trans person? If I didn’t transmit enough outwardly readable signs over the last 10 years, am I allowed to transition, or will I hurt and bewilder the people in my life by transitioning without first communicating a lot of gender nonconformity/visible depression/whatever attributes other people might associate with ‘transitioning potential.’ ”
Q. Chronic oversharer: I am a single (and ready-to-mingle) dude who was recently diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that isn’t life-threatening but will require treatment and checkups and will (and already has) changed the way I operate in various ways. Nothing crazy—dizziness, vertigo, general balance difficulties, and the possibility that I may go completely deaf in one ear. On top of that, a few years ago I experienced a traumatic event that has left me with some PTSD issues. I have made peace with these things and would like to move forward and start dating again. The problem is I am a pretty socially awkward dude who can tend toward oversharing. I imagine the words brain tumor might be pretty scary to the future Mrs. Oversharer, so I want to have a strategy going in. When do you think it is appropriate to divulge this information, and how can I tell them in a way that doesn’t scare them away? I’m a pretty cool guy despite my brain.
A: Ideally, you will find women who are sort of into oversharing (within reason) to go out with. I’m not suggesting you just completely roll with this and seek out people with terrible boundaries looking to force emotional intimacy and commitment within five minutes of meeting one another, but in addition to finding ways to check your oversharing tendencies, I think you should also seek out women who prioritize openness/frankness/unpredictability on a first date. If you’re using dating apps, for example, you might mention either in your profile (or in an early message if you’d rather hold back a little) some version of what you say here: “I have a benign brain tumor [or “benign medical condition” if you want to avoid the word tumor] that means sometimes I have trouble balancing and an unassociated condition that means I’m not always up for big parties [or whatever methods you use to cope with your PTSD that you might want a potential date to know about].”
In the long term, I think it’s good to find strategies to minimize your oversharing tendencies—not because I think you should try to become a different kind of person, but because it will make life easier if you’re in conscious control of whether the Information Spigot is turned on or off. But I also think it makes sense to look for women who are OK with the fact that you’ll probably always gravitate toward being a little more open, quick to share what you’re thinking or feeling, because that’s a pretty big part of who you are.
Q. Re: Not a dog person: You do not have to fix your sister-in-law’s (and mother-in-law’s—why’s she involved in this anyway!) upset here. Let her be upset. “Sorry, that just won’t work, as we’ve discussed.” Then stop talking about it.
A: Yeah, I think the real challenge here is not coming up with a new way to say this, but finding a way to be OK if your sister- or mother-in-law is upset about a made-up problem for kind of goofy reasons. I get it; I don’t like it when people are upset and it’s hard for me to remember I don’t have to fix it. But you gotta find ways to do it.
Q. Re: Annoyed groomswoman: If the plan is to wear a women’s pantsuit or something of the sort (not just a full-on copy of menswear, tie, etc.), I’d show the sister-in-law some pictures of what you’re thinking of wearing. If you could incorporate her bridal color into it somehow, that would be a nice compromise. I’m not saying meet her full-halfway, but at least make some gesture. It will make your brother’s life much easier too.
A: I think that’s a nice idea! It may be that the letter writer will have to abandon that strategy if the sister-in-law makes things more difficult, but at least offering something to compromise on might make the letter writer feel like she’s giving it her best effort. Alternatively, she might ask her brother: “Hey, if I’m getting conflicting input about what to wear on your wedding day from you and Fiancée, who do you want me to ask for the final word? I assumed it would be you since we’re groomswomen, but if you two have worked something else out, let me know.”
Q. My wife is wonderful, but she gained 50 pounds and I have no feelings for her: I’ve been married to a wonderful woman and mother of our three kids for 25 years. Our kids are all adults now and have moved away. I’ve come to realize over the last five years that I don’t love my wife. I don’t hate her—she’s my best friend. But I have zero feelings for her. She’s put on 50 pounds over the last 10 years, which is a major turnoff. We haven’t had sex in five years due to this. I want to be happy, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I just feel like I’m on the treadmill of life going nowhere real fast. What to do?
And find even more letters in the archive.