Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Parents’ problematic Facebook groups: My parents recently got invited to a neighborhood Facebook group that, alongside garage sales, traffics heavily in racist fake news concerning real and imagined crimes by “African youths.” Challenging them on facts doesn’t work. (“Why would someone post it if it wasn’t true?”) Would it be wrong of me to sneakily grab their phone and unfollow the worst offenders? They are pretty hopeless with technology, so they won’t notice, but the world would be a better place if their news feed reverted to baby photos and cat videos.
A: You are not violating your parents’ rights to constantly absorb racist videos on Facebook; go ahead and unsubscribe them with my blessing, and keep challenging their racism whenever they bring it up, even if you don’t make immediate headway.
Q. Gambling: I finally cut off contact with my younger brother. He is a gambling addict. He can blow thousands of dollars in a single weekend and still beg for more money because he is “owed” a winning streak. He will not admit he has a problem. It has been a problem for years, and I finally reached my limit. He called me up begging for money. His girlfriend’s kid was very sick, and they both were in between paychecks. I could hear the kid coughing in the background, so I relented and sent him over $200 via an app. The idiot took and then posted pictures of himself at the casino less than two hours later. The kid wasn’t even sick; I called my brother’s girlfriend, and she had no clue what I was talking about. I called my brother and left a message that I hope he won big because it had cost him a brother. I blocked him on social media and my phone.
I was talking about it later with some friends when one of the girls chirped that I needed to be “more compassionate” to my brother, since gambling addiction was a disease and he was “sick.” And I wasn’t “allowed” to be mad at my brother because when you give people money, it is theirs to do with as they wish. My jaw dropped. I asked her if she thought it was OK for drug addicts to rob people and if she would be OK if I went into her purse and took money out of her wallet. She turned red and said no. Then I said, did she think it was compassionate to treat a stranger better than your own brother? It got heated, and someone else stepped in, but I seethed the entire night. Now I have friends telling me I need to apologize to this girl because I made her “feel bad.” I just lost my brother, but her feeling bad matters more. I barely know this girl, and she decided to open her mouth and lecture me. I know I am not in the best place emotionally, but that is a really shitty thing to do, right? I don’t want to apologize, but I don’t know if my instincts are the best here. I need outside perspective. I loved my brother, I tried my best since our parents died, but there is nothing left in me anymore. He’s taken it all and gambled it away.
A: It’s possible that at some point during this argument, the best thing you could have said was “I don’t think we’re going to agree about this, and I’m not comfortable arguing about my private relationship with my brother anymore. Let’s talk about something else.” But you were under some pretty serious provocation, and this girl who barely knows you was wildly out of line to try to tell you how to feel about your own brother (not to mention the fact that she implied “having compassion” for him meant you’re not allowed to set limits or acknowledge the ways in which his gambling addiction has hurt you). If you think you lost your temper, you might consider saying something to your friend like, “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable that night I got into an argument with ____. I should have realized the conversation wasn’t going anywhere productive sooner and stopped it before it started to dominate everybody’s night. But I’m not sorry I disagreed with her, and I still think she was out of line to tell me I don’t have compassion for my brother. Part of the reason I was telling my friends about our estrangement is because I feel sad, angry, and overwhelmed at the fact that I don’t really have a relationship with my brother anymore, that he’s repeatedly demonstrated he just wants money from me and nothing else. I’m looking for a little compassion myself.”
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Q. Re: Parents’ problematic Facebook groups: OMFG, do not modify your parents’ Facebook settings without their consent or knowledge. Would you like it if they did the same to you?
A: Yeah, I don’t really go for using the language of autonomy about something like the right to look at racist videos about imaginary crimes committed by nonexistent black people when you log into Facebook. I think it’s fine to be a little benevolently paternalistic in this case.
Q. Reluctant quitter: My husband, “Michael,” and I were married two years ago at the age of 34. We are both in relatively good health, though my general practitioner has reminded me repeatedly that any pregnancy at this point would be a geriatric pregnancy (requested an AARP card for my uterus, she was not amused). One of the things she recommended to me was to quit smoking before we even try to get pregnant. But how can I, when smoking is what gets me through life?
I am the most junior analyst at a job where the team lead has been known to make people quit, cry, and break out into random cursing fits. You can take as many smoke breaks as you need, if work is caught up, so I smoke to get away from her. My husband’s band is touring the best dive bars in the Southeast? Then it’s a smoke with a beer. Want to cry but too emotionally constipated? Have a smoke. Dealing with my occasionally bigoted in-laws (and low-key Southern racism in general) when I’m reminded that two people of separate races are “unequally yoked”? Smoke. Drive past where my veteran best friend killed himself? Smoke three back to back.
The longest I have quit for is three months. And to be honest, I hated every wretched minute of it. I’ve tried pills, patches, gum, herbal cigarettes, diet, exercise, water, hypnotism, and vaping. Nothing replaces the awesomeness of having a habit that, for the most part, doesn’t encourage people to follow you when you walk off. Michael, who quit smoking cold turkey years ago, thinks that I am just putting it off because I hate procreation. How do I explain that smoking is what keeps me from burning down my job, cussing out his family, or breaking down and crying when life gets to be too much? Why deal with feelings when I can compartmentalize them by the time I have finished my cigarette?
A: I relate profoundly to this! Whenever I’ve quit smoking, after the quitting flu dissipates, my brain immediately starts saying: “Great, OK, we’ve quit for a week. We did it! Whatever quitting is, we did it. Now when do we start smoking again?” Not smoking has only felt bearable if I’ve been able to think of the day when I’ll start smoking again. Part of the joy of a physical addiction is structuring your day around an absolutely undeniable need: I have to get this much ______ or else I’ll get sick. And for someone who’s in the habit of minimizing a lot of their other needs (like the need for a job that doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to have a nervous breakdown every hour, or for an honest, reliable relationship with your partner where you’re not worried they’re about to run off on a dive bar tour and leave you holding the Responsibility Bag, or the need to live free from racist harassment), it can come to feel necessary to being able to function. “As long as I can have this one thing that’s wholly mine, wholly private, wholly uninterrupted, and combines a sense of physical relief with a self-destructive impulse, I can deal with the rest of my totally unsustainable life.”
That’s not to say, by the way, that if you were to quit your job and find a better one, or if you had some difficult conversations with your partner about what you need from one another, or if you cut your in-laws out of your life, that you’d suddenly be free of the urge to smoke. Smoking is still physically addictive no matter how smoothly your life is running. But I do think you’ve correctly identified what smoking is doing for you, in addition to calming down the I-need-nicotine part of your brain, when you say “Why deal with feelings when I can compartmentalize them by the time I have finished my cigarette?” It’s worked for you, right up until it’s stopped working for you. Now that you’ve run up against something like the plan to get pregnant that exposes the weak spots in your coping strategy, it’s become clear that you need more than what just smoking can give you. Like a partner who doesn’t ask you to spend time with his racist family so they can tell you that your relationship is “unequal,” for example, or a job that offers more in the way of work-life balance than just “smoke when you’re about to pass out, then get back to work.” I hope you do continue to try to quit smoking, because I want you to live a long and healthy life, but I also think the idea of getting pregnant is making it clear how little support you have in your life right now, and how much more you need. Not just for the sake of a potential child if you do get pregnant, but for your sake.
Q. My parents won’t let my adult partner stay in my room: My parents are deeply conservative—if occasionally hypocritical—Southern Baptists. My partner of four years and I make the hourlong drive nearly every weekend to visit them, my siblings, my grandparents, and my partner’s parents, but normally we stay with my family. They want us to visit and beg us to see them when we don’t (and we really enjoy seeing them!). But recently they’ve begun to make a big deal out of us sleeping in the same room. There are other places to sleep in the house, but they’re incredibly uncomfortable, and at this point it seems silly since we share an apartment and we’ve already been sharing a bed at my parents’ house until now. We aren’t married and do not intend to get married, but we have made a long-term commitment to one another. If it were just occasional visits, I wouldn’t worry about it, and it would be petty to threaten not to come visit over this. But their proposed sleeping arrangements are just so uncomfortable. I can’t afford to rent a hotel every other weekend, or I would go that route. Is this a battle worth fighting?
A: I certainly think anything that affects most of your weekends in a given year is worth addressing directly! I wonder if the first and best opportunity for doing so is not revisiting the who-sleeps-where policy but revisiting the “spending almost every weekend at my parents’ house.” I get that you’re close and generally enjoy seeing them, but that’s an awful lot of visits! Might you and your partner not enjoy setting aside, say, one or two weekends a month for spending time with your friends or relaxing at home? You might find that it makes your return visits a little less fraught when they don’t come every five to seven days.
That said, you still have to figure out what to do when you are there, and I want to help you find a balance between honoring your parents’ wishes (even when they don’t dovetail with your own priorities, and even when those wishes are slightly inconsistent with the sleeping arrangements of the past) and establishing yourself as an adult in a long-term, committed relationship. I think it’s best to approach them before your next visit and say this: “Mom and Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve gotten more uncomfortable recently with our sharing a room when we visit. For the past few years we’ve shared a room and it’s seemed fine, but if something’s changed for you and you want to revisit the conversation, we can. As you know, we live together and don’t plan on getting married to signify our commitment, so this isn’t something that’s going to go away anytime soon. Do you have any thoughts?” I don’t think it’s “threatening” to say that a room-sharing change would probably mean you visit a little less often; it’s not just a question of sex but of the legitimacy of your relationship, and being asked to split up every weekend is a pretty big request for them to make of you. It’s more a matter of cause and effect. If they can ultimately decide that, while they wish you’d get married, they can respect your choice not to, that’s great. If they can’t, and they want to request that every visit you two sleep apart and lose out on the little domestic habits that make up a pretty significant part of living together, then it stands to reason that you will visit a little less often, or at least end up driving home rather than spending the night.
Q. Do I have a stalker? I need help sorting through the mess I’ve made and protecting myself. I’m ashamed to say that I had a yearlong affair with a coworker “Bob.” We are both married and justified the affair with lame excuses about our marriages. I was severely depressed and enjoyed the attention and thrill. He is a habitual cheater and creates a lot of drama, so it was a vicious cycle of ups and downs and me trying to walk away several times but getting pulled back in. I finally cut it off six months ago: I quit my job, got myself on medication, and started exercising, eating better, and really focusing on my marriage and my well-being. Neither of our spouses knows.
My birthday was two months ago, and he sent me a gift, even though we hadn’t had any contact in four months. It wasn’t smart on my part, but I sent him an email to say thank you. He responded and I realized I didn’t want to get sucked in again, so I blocked his email. Just recently, I sold one of the gifts he’d given me during the affair. It was an antique item ($100 value). I sold it very cheaply (among other things I was purging from our house) on my husband’s old eBay account. My husband hadn’t used this account in quite some time. Out of the blue, I got a very angry text from Bob demanding to know how I could have sold the gift. It really startled and scared me. How did he even know I sold it? And he confronted me like I had done something wrong and hurt him. I didn’t respond and blocked his number on my phone so I don’t get any more texts, but I’m freaked out over this. I don’t know if I should worry or not about this behavior. I don’t know if I should hide anything online; my name isn’t on the account, it’s my husband’s very old email address, the item was sold to some random person across the country, and I have no idea how he tracked it. I’m feeling paranoid, uneasy, guilty that I got myself involved with this guy, and unsure of what I should be doing. Please help me get some perspective!
A: I worry you might not like this perspective, but I think you need to talk to your husband about this. The two of you were involved for a year, you used to work together, he’s keeping tabs on at least one account associated with your husband, and you’re currently a ball of anxiety and panic about whether you’re going to hear from Bob again. I think the mental and emotional energy of trying to hide a pretty significant affair from your husband for presumably the rest of your marriage is going to take a toll you can’t afford to pay. Imagine how much worse it will feel if your husband finds out because Bob gets in touch with him, or if he senses that you’ve been distant and preoccupied and finds some sort of evidence you didn’t remember to scrub. Keeping this from your husband is just too exhausting, especially when you know your ex–affair partner is angry and potentially trying to find other ways to get in touch with you and you want to prepare yourself for it.
I imagine the temptation right now is to say, “Look, I got away with it for a whole year, and now I’d never even dream of seeing Bob again. I finally understand what I risked by having an affair, and I’m willing to give my marriage all I’ve got. Telling my husband would mean losing everything because I’m sure he’d leave me, and maybe this panicking on my own is the best form of penance I can do for cheating on him. If I can just isolate, manage, and control this Bob problem, it’ll be my own way of making up for my infidelity without my husband having to ever find out.” But I think that’s a fantasy. It would be better to be honest with your husband so you can both batten down the hatches when it comes to your social media, phones, email addresses, etc., and for your own sense of isolation and guilt (and, I think, your husband has a right to know, after such a long and sustained affair). If the two of you are able to move past this eventually and rebuild a relationship together, that’s wonderful. But even if you can’t, my goal for you is to address and deal with your guilt and try to move on with your life, not endlessly berate yourself and panic in secrecy that your secret is about to come out and ruin your life.
Q. Office peep show: My colleagues and I decided to reach out to you with a problem that’s recently developed. Our office is on the seventh floor of a downtown building. Two streets away is a recently completed apartment complex with a penthouse level with two apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows. One apartment keeps the shades down. The other always has them fully up. The resident routinely walks around during office hours naked or in a bra and underwear. Today she walked out on her balcony undressed. The apartment is exactly in our line of sight (particularly in my office), and it’s impossible not to notice. This may seem funny or titillating to some, but we find this very distracting and unwelcome. What is the best course of action? Email the management company? Stop by the lobby and say something to the front desk person? Maybe she doesn’t realize just how visible she is.
A: Some of this is just the problem of urban living; you have tons of people trying to be professional/casual/relaxed/at home/in public/in private all at the same time, often in very close quarters. So while it’s certainly fine for someone to want to enjoy being naked in their own home (and I can imagine that someone on the seventh floor might not realize they’re very visible, even on a balcony), I can also understand that it’s not funny or intriguing when you’re trying to keep a meeting on track. I think your best bet is to pull down the curtains when you notice something especially eye-catching in your line of sight. You can, I suppose, ask the building’s managers to send an email around to residents asking them to be mindful of when they have their shades up or down, but I wouldn’t hold my breath assuming that this will have much effect or that you can make sure no one else in any of the buildings facing you will ever walk around the house in their underwear. Don’t make the front desk person worry about it; whether they’re security or a doorman, that’s a lot of extra work to ask of someone who just works in the building. If you’re going to make the request, make it of the building management, and phrase it in such a way that doesn’t target an individual (because, as you say, you don’t know that she’s doing it on purpose) so they can send out a general update.
As I am writing, someone just pointed out that Ask a Manager answered this last week; looks like we were of the same mind on the subject. (Is it just me, or are we seeing more and more simultaneous submissions these days? I admire the determination to get your question answered as often as possible.) Of course, it’s possible that more than one person works in a high-rise and occasionally sees someone in their apartment across the street in the same week. Either way, I’m happy to answer any questions, even if someone’s double-dipping.
Q. Tattoo privacy: I have a tattoo on my stomach. In social situations, I have a couple of friends who tell me to “show them [mine]!” when tattoos come up. In a lot of social situations, I don’t want to lift up my shirt and show people, especially people I’ve never met before. Is it rude to say no?
A: It is not rude! It is never rude to decline to lift your shirt at someone else’s prompting. If it’s the same few friends who have been repeat offenders, you can tell them you’re not always comfortable lifting your shirt to strangers (which should be obvious!) and they need to knock it off. Otherwise, you can just say, “No, thanks,” and let the conversation move on.
Q. Re: My parents won’t let my adult partner stay in my room: Do not give in to your parents on this. You are an adult, and they do not get a say in your sex life or relationships. Stay in a hotel during future visits and only go as often as you can afford. What they are doing is rude and controlling. Make it clear that if they want to be part of your life, they need to accept your choices and treat them with respect.
A: I don’t think this is the first approach the original poster is going to want to try, if only because they seem to otherwise really enjoy their relationship with their parents and are generally OK with some compromise on the sleeping-together-at-their-parents’-house rule. Obviously other people might want to take a hard line on this, which I completely understand. But it’s up to the letter writer to figure out just how much they want to push here.
Q. Re: My parents won’t let my adult partner stay in my room: Just wondering if what changed for the parents is that they previously assumed the cohabitation would eventually lead to marriage and thus were grudgingly accepting it. Did you recently tell them you had decided to remain as a committed unmarried couple, and did their behavior change after? Not sure if this changes what you do in the abstract, but if this is the issue, having the additional context might help inform the conversation you have with them.
A: Oh, that’s interesting! Yes, if that’s part of what’s changed for them, I think it’s better to figure out what will work for everyone (The letter writer continues to be unmarried, continues to direct her own sleeping arrangements at home/in hotels, declines to spend the night with parents OR the parents decide to privately disagree but not try to force her to change), rather than spend a lot of time arguing about a wedding that’s never going to happen. But it might just be that they’ve cycled back to a period of more religious conservatism; lots of people, in my limited experience, sometimes “snap back” after being a little more laissez-faire for a few years.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for your help, everyone! Don’t worry, I still get paid for answering the fake letters. See you next week!
From Care and Feeding
Q. Why won’t my grown daughter answer my texts? My wife and I divorced when my daughter was 6 years old and I was 43. I love my daughter to death, marveling as she grew up, basking in her love, and returning in kind. I still love her so much, but there is something wrong in our relationship.
She has no difficulty in ignoring my texts to her, never mind my calls. It hurts me very much when she blows me off. She’ll say, “I never respond to texts from anyone,” but will immediately respond to anybody’s texts during those infrequent times we are together.
While I am far from the perfect father, I have always loved her without bounds. In the years after our divorce, I drank heavily, so I suppose that might have something to do with her behavior. Her mom has constantly tried to minimize my involvement in my daughter’s life. She was terrible in how she portrayed me to my girl. I always thought that my daughter would see through all that as she got older. But her apathy about our relationship hurts me deeply.
I have tried to speak with her about this, but she insists that she loves me very much. I’ve tried to take the approach that kids can be like this at her age, but I’m having serious doubts and am beginning to think there is something seriously wrong. Please help!