Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone! Let’s get healthy.
Q. Bad “pet grandma”? I’m a widow with two daughters, “Laurie” and “Diane.” I’m in the process of writing my will and have allocated 35 percent of my estate to each of my daughters, and 15 percent to each of Diane’s children—both under age 5—to be put into college savings accounts. Laurie is furious that I haven’t given an equal share to “Spot,” her golden retriever puppy, compared with what she calls his “human cousins.” She treats Spot like her child and refers to him as such. She has accused me of unfairness and bias, and likened my actions to homophobia—she has called being a “pet parent” an “orientation.”
I think her obsession with Spot is unhealthy and bordering on ridiculous. I love Spot and make sure I have his favorite treats and toys when they visit, but I really do not feel I owe him more than this, and I resent my grandchildren being compared to a dog. Laurie hasn’t spoken to me in a month and says she won’t until I amend my will. Please help.
A: There’s not a lot you can or should do to meet these pretty absurd demands. I’m truly sorry that your daughter has made the choice to prioritize having a rich dog (that’s something I’ve never understood about naming a pet in one’s will—what on earth is a dog going to do with a lot of human money?) over talking to her mother. It’s painful and difficult when someone we love chooses to cling to a ridiculous sense of having been wronged rather than have a conversation or let it go, but I don’t know what else you can do here, short of joining Laurie in her delusions. Continue to let her know that you love her and that you’ll be there when and if she’s ready to climb off the cross, but in the meantime do your best to remind yourself that no one is hurting Laurie but Laurie—you’re not failing to affirm her singleness or child-free life. You’re not going out of your way to remind her that you only care about having grandchildren or that you think her dog doesn’t matter. You’re simply declining to pay for a dog’s college education.
Q. Hermitage: I am 24 years old, and I am what people would call a hermit, but I am extremely happy with my life. I leave my house about once a week, mainly to get the week’s mail, and then I go back inside. I live in a studio apartment just big enough for me, and it’s perfect. I rarely leave my bed unless it’s to cook, shower, use the bathroom, or exercise. I work full-time from home in customer service, and I have been working for the same company since I was 18. I could move up, but I have no desire to. When I’m not working, I’m watching movies or TV, painting, exercising, or reading. I received several full-ride scholarship offers to college after I graduated high school, but I turned them down. I don’t have any friends and communicate with a few family members online only. Everything gets delivered to my house so I don’t have to go out and get it (groceries, dry cleaning, etc.).
I love my life, but the few family members I have are apparently very concerned because I never go out. I was diagnosed with depression when I was in high school and am on medication (which also gets shipped to me—yay!), and the meds work great. Whereas before, I was so miserable I could barely shower or get dressed, now I live a full and productive life—just inside my home. I used to love to go out and travel, but now I have absolutely no interest in that, and I think it’s a waste of time and money. I do have hobbies and interests, so I don’t think this is depression. I don’t have any anxiety about leaving the house. I just don’t really feel like it, and I have zero desire to change my lifestyle. I am perfectly content and prefer to be alone, and I have no desire to get married or to have kids or pets. Is this a healthy way to be living, or do I need to change something?
A: That last question is such a kicker! I think that everyone gets to make a lot of trade-offs that seem best to them in their own lives, and that while there are certain broad truths about health that strike me as pretty universal, constant health maximization isn’t necessary the best goal for everyone. I’m not sure if you’re worried about your current lifestyle because some of your family members have been asking questions about it or if you have doubts or concerns of your own. If it’s the latter, it might be useful to spend a little time writing some of those fears on paper so you can assess them, figure out which ones feel most rational or practical, which ones feel long-term versus short-term, what if anything you might like to do about them, etc.
You might also consider doing a bit of informal research about other forms of retreat/hermitage to see what other kinds of people have lived in some form of isolation from a larger society, whether that be the Desert Mothers and Fathers or the Baal Shem Tov or anyone else. Which ones appeal to you? Which ones would you most like to emulate? What are some of the qualities of a life lived mostly within the home that bring you joy? It’s certainly an unusual lifestyle, the one you’re describing; many people wouldn’t be well-suited to it, and there may come a time later in your life when you find it’s no longer desirable to live in such tightly controlled circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong now or that you ought to do things that make you unhappy just because you think other people would want you to. Keep tabs on what you want and what you need, and be willing to change something if the time is right, but if this is working for you right now, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be grateful you’re no longer in daily anguish from untreated depression and to celebrate the pleasure you derive from a quiet, contemplative, indoors life.
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Q. Lack of reciprocation: A good friend of mine owns a for-profit business that almost seems like a nonprofit, because it primarily serves a cause. She has some outside funding, but not a ton, so over the past few years I’ve frequently offered my services at no cost and donated money on behalf of my business as well as helped her with simple chores like picking up large items and stuffing envelopes. I declined her offers to pay me and have appreciated that she always takes the time to let me know how grateful she is for the support both privately and publicly.
This was all fine until last week, when I asked her to lend some of her skills to my business for the first time. I outlined a finite task I needed to have done that’s exactly in her wheelhouse and asked how much she would like to charge. I was shocked that she quoted me her full, kind-of-expensive rate! I have truly always offered help to her without thinking of reciprocation down the line, but I do actually feel very hurt by her lack of reciprocation now that it’s come up. I really believe in the work that she’s doing and am aware that my business is much more profitable than hers at the moment, so maybe I should just deal with it? She’s really excited by the task I asked of her, so I don’t think she’s trying to blow me off by quoting such a high figure. I already sent her the work so I can’t just back out. I have to either pay her what she requested or explain that I’m surprised and hurt, or both! What should I do?
A: I think you’ve already written out the answer to your own letter. Your friend runs a struggling business and often needs help from her friends getting simple tasks like picking up deliveries and sending out mailers done. This has never been a two-way street (although she may be a helpful, conscientious friend when work isn’t involved), and she can’t afford to work for free or at a reduced rate, so when you asked her what she charged, she likely had no idea she’d offend you by quoting her regular prices. She likely considers this another part of your habit of helping her out—that you sought her out for this job rather than another contract worker so that she could earn a little extra money. I think that if you want to talk to your friend about reciprocation—which would be entirely fair—you should be clear about what you want from her, rather than hoping she’ll be able to anticipate what you’re asking of her. Also, if at some point you decide you want to cut back on the free work you do for her, that’s entirely fair, and as long as you’re polite and upfront about when and how much you’ll be scaling back, it’s a perfectly polite thing to do. You can believe in her work, occasionally want to be helpful, and still limit the amount of time you spend running errands on her company’s behalf!
Q. Co-worker who’s a toucher: A woman who started working at my office last fall reaches out and touches my arm repeatedly when I am talking with her and am near enough for her to do it. I don’t think she realizes she’s doing it, but it makes me very uncomfortable, and I have found myself trying to keep far enough away that she can’t reach me. We went out to lunch together in her car. On the way back she reached out and touched my arm as she was talking and I was strapped in to the passenger seat. I tried to pull myself toward the door but could only move so far. I should have stated that I’m also female. That’s not really the issue, I don’t want to be touched by men in the workplace without my consent, either. I don’t think she’s predatory, the way some men are. She seems to do the touching, either with her fingertips or grasping the forearm, to emphasize a point she is making when talking. She does the touching with other people too. She has spoken about getting together for social activities outside of work. I’m kind of reluctant because of this and will probably make up some excuses.
The next time she touches me, would it be OK for me to ask her if she would mind not touching me, as it makes me uncomfortable? Then again, it may not make any difference. She also interrupts when you are speaking, but the touching thing just creeps me out.
A: You can totally ask her not to touch your arm! It’s fine to say you don’t like something even if you’re certain the person doing it has the best of intentions and doesn’t realize they’re making you uncomfortable. You can say so politely and professionally, obviously, but it’s not an inherently accusatory request to make—just tell her that you’re not a touchy person and you’d prefer not to be touched during conversation. If the idea of being so direct makes you uncomfortable, you can soften it by ending your request with “Thank you so much for keeping that in mind. It really helps me feel comfortable and at ease.” If it takes her a while to adjust, or if she occasionally forgets, you can gently move your arm away and say, “Excuse me” if it happens again.
Also, even if she immediately corrects herself and never touches you again, you don’t have to socialize with her outside of work! Socializing with co-workers is—or should be—optional. It’s not a referendum on whether she’s a good person—it’s just that you might like to keep your social life and your professional life separate.
Q. What does “trying hard enough” in a relationship mean? Today my boyfriend of three years (we’re both guys in our early-20s) told me, after I forgot to do one of the things he’d asked me to do late the night before while he was suddenly at his dad’s house for Father’s Day, that he was upset I hadn’t fixed this bad habit of mine sooner. I’m fully aware that I drop the ball when it comes to remembering things, but he gets annoyed at me whenever I ask him to check in with me or ask me again later in order to cement information in my head. He feels he shouldn’t have to ask me twice to do things and that I’m not trying hard enough. I’ve gotten a lot better with this over the past three years, but he’s not wrong about my history. How do I ask him to meet me halfway between my short-term memory screw-ups and his insistence on perfection? Is asking him to mark every important request with “This is important, please do this” too much? He’s incredibly stubborn, and explaining the way my brain works feels like trying to submerge a kayak in a tub of molasses.
A: Is it possible to send yourself a text or keep the notes app on your phone open when he asks you to do something so you can write it down and refer back to it later? I often have trouble myself remembering things I’ve agreed to, and I’ve gotten into the habit of setting a lot of calendar alerts so that my phone beeps at me half an hour before I’m supposed to do something, or immediately afterward in case I’ve forgotten. I can definitely sympathize with your problem, but I can also understand why your partner might not want to take on the role of coaching you through errands and household chores. I’d suggest saying to him, “I really want to get better at this, and I’m going to start writing things down when you ask them of me and setting up alerts. It might help me to tell you or text you when I start doing them, just so I can externalize a little bit of the mental work; it’s genuinely difficult for me to change this habit, but I do want you to know that I’m trying. You don’t have to respond to those messages. I’m just trying to say what I’m doing out loud to help me remember. Does that work?”
Q. Normative gender roles in a trans-cis relationship: My partner and I are getting married in a year. This makes me so happy that I can just scream! But I am worried I am falling into normative gender roles. I have a 9–5 office job that involves traveling 25 percent of the time. Since I have started this job, my partner has taken over all the house chores and sees it as their duty to do so. This scares me because I am unsure if this is the type of relationship I want. We are a queer couple: I’m cis, and my partner is trans. Shouldn’t we be trying to push for more of a balance of home activities? Is this a healthy mindset? Is this something worth discussing with my partner?
A: Anxieties about gender roles and dissatisfaction with the division of chores at home are always worth discussing with your partner! Yes, absolutely you should talk to your partner about this. It may be that there’s something meaningful or fun or important or all three about doing chores for them right now, so I’d encourage you to ask questions and to listen well when your partner tells you what the idea of household “duty” means to them. But I’d be awfully surprised if you said, “Look, it’s really important to me that I still pitch in and help clean the bathroom once a week” and your partner’s response were anything other than “Terrific, thanks.” I don’t think you two are on the verge of tipping into 1950s sitcom territory at present, but I think it’s worth sharing that that’s something you’re afraid of, and finding ways for you to incorporate more housework into your schedule.
Q. Re: Bad “pet grandma”? Laurie has looked at the math and realizes she will get 35 percent of your estate, while Diane will get 65 percent. No, the dog shouldn’t get any of it. But maybe it’s easier to make it about the dog and not the money. I suspect Laurie is feeling that she and her sister deserve a 50-50 split, with funds for grandkids coming out of her sister’s portion. My mother and her siblings just settled their mother’s will and they only looked at what each family got, not what each person got.
A: That may be the case. If so, Laurie has chosen the most unreasonable way imaginable to express an objection. Moreover, I think it’s totally reasonable for the letter writer to want to provide for her grandchildren and that everyone involved is profoundly fortunate to be getting money from a parents’ estate. Demanding that your dog get an equal share of a human being’s inheritance is not a good way to make a principled objection to a decision you really don’t have the grounds to dispute in the first place.
Q. Re: Hermitage: This person might also think about doing a stint in therapy remotely. They won’t have to go out to do it, and the therapist would be able to see their functioning wonderful apartment.
A: Sure! I think therapy is great, even if you’re not in a moment of crisis—sometimes especially when you’re not in a moment of crisis, because sooner or later a crisis always finds you. A remote therapist might be able to help the letter writer assess their goals and their well-being while also allowing them to stay at home in a comfortable, controlled environment.
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Q. My brother and I have started making out: My brother and I are having a physical relationship. Our parents are admirable people who took good care of us, but are distant and aloof, and I think that my brother and I turned to each other for warmth and emotional support. He’s two years older and looked out for me in high school, and I shared with him what girls are like, which made him more confident socially. After he went away to college, I chose a college in the same city as his, so we continued to see a lot of each other. I’m now a senior and he’s a graduate student.
About three months ago we were sitting on my couch watching a sad movie and when it was over we turned to each other, exchanged a look, and started kissing. Now we lie on the bed, clothed, and kiss and talk and hold each other. When I’m with him I feel loved and cared for. We have not had sex because there’s a psychological barrier that neither of us wants to cross. I go on dates with other men, but I never feel the emotional connection that I feel with my brother.
I needed to talk to someone about this so I went to a counselor at the student health service, and in the first session she practically ordered me not to see him for three months. I left in tears and haven’t gone back. We want to lead normal lives and have families. We both know intellectually that we shouldn’t be doing this, but we don’t feel the wrongness of it. Must we stop this immediately, or may we let it continue and hope we grow out of it?
And find even more letters in the archive.