Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Morning, everybody! Lots of problems, lots to do. Let’s get started.
Q. Ghosts in the attic: I love my house, which I bought about four years ago. I feel comfortable, peaceful, calm, and happy in it. I lived here about a year before one day my neighbor across the street asked if I knew about the woman “who died there years ago.” I said “No!” with utter surprise, and he began to scold the realtors for not disclosing the details. He said it was “very sad” and “tragic,” but I don’t know anything about who she was or any circumstances surrounding the story. All I know is that there were some not-so-great people living here for years while the house was rented out, and that this neighbor has lived on the street for a long time. If anybody knows something about this street, it’s probably him.
I haven’t told anybody about this. I’m engaged now and neither my family nor my future wife know. If we felt ghosts moving things around or felt evil spirits or something, I’d feel more compelled to say something. We both feel complete peace and have even talked about how peaceful the “air” is, so to speak. I feel like saying something will only open a can of worms. She loves this house and wants to stay here until we are old! She is generally freaked out about ghosts and spirits. Even talking about them makes her uncomfortable and causes her to change the subject. I would like to know more about the history of our house, but I don’t know where to look. More importantly, should I say something that could put a stain on how she loves our house, or do I leave that skeleton in the closet?
A: I’m not sure what you would tell your partner, if you decided to. I don’t want to creep you out unnecessarily, but my guess is that most houses of a certain age have seen at least one death within their walls. You have, almost certainly, at one point or another been inside of a building someone else once died in. The whole planet is a grave of everyone who has ever lived before you! (I realize this makes me sound like a Cure song, but you know what I mean.) If the most recent owner of the house had been brutally murdered three weeks before you bought the place, and the killer were still on the loose, you might have grounds to say something to your fiancée and the realtor who sold you the place. But all you have is a gossip-y neighbor and the vague intimation that a long time ago he didn’t like the family who used to rent your house. You’ve lived here peacefully for years, you and your future wife both love it there, and no one else has stopped in front of your yard, lifted a trembling finger to your front door, and whispered, “That’s it … that’s the murder house.” I don’t think you’re withholding important information from your partner, and I don’t think your property has had an unusual relationship to death. I hope you two are able to stay there until you’re old, too.
Q. Co-worker with horrible grammar: I work closely with a lady who is very sweet, smart, and easy to work with. However, she has really bad grammar. She mispronounces words (drownding, warsh) and uses “I seen” and “I had went.” I occasionally correct her, but I know it wears on her. Well, it wears on me to hear this on a daily basis! I want to tell her that she sounds like a bumpkin and probably does not make a good impression on others because of this, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I cringe every time she butchers the English language; it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. What can I do?
A: You can cultivate detachment, breathe deeply, and focus on your own work. This sounds more like a regional accent—warsh, especially—than an inability to correctly pronounce certain words she may have read but never heard. You’re still able to understand her meaning, and there are a number of English languages, not just one. (You don’t sound like Katharine Hepburn or Ben Jonson; that doesn’t make you or Hepburn or Jonson wrong.) This is not a work issue except insofar as you are disrupting her workday when you don’t have to. So knock it off.
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Q. Helping out my husband: My husband is mostly great, but he has some blind spots I can’t get him to see. He will periodically say things that feel pretty sexist to me. The most recent example was after I complained about working with HR, he said something along the lines of HR being terrible and wholly ineffective because it is completely staffed by women. This is not the first time he has made a comment like this: He also loves when we encounter bad drivers and he can point out to me that they are women. (Bad drivers who turn out to be men don’t require follow-up commentary.) This rarely comes out on me—he seems to think I am amazing—but I sometimes feel like he thinks that I am different from other women in a lot of ways. (I am not.)
I brought up the fact that his HR comment bothered me, that it feels like he is coming from a place of saying that women are bad at things and so it’s not surprising that a department full of women is ineffectual. My husband got angry with me for being too sensitive and thinking the worst of him and branding him a sexist when he was just making a joke. It is true that I am sensitive by nature, but at least some of it comes from 38 years of experiencing sexism, much of it as “just a joke.” I don’t want to hear it from my own husband. And while I generally believe that he isn’t super sexist, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a little bit. I tried to illustrate it by saying that if he had a friend he knew not to be racist who said racist things, it would be much harder to believe he didn’t actually espouse those beliefs at least a little. My husband just said that if he knew his friend, he could understand that it was just a joke (which just made me feel worse—my husband is white and I am not, and I don’t think there is ever a reason to condone a racist joke).
We are in couples counseling where our (male) therapist often seems to side with me on these issues and works to help my husband understand. But it often feels that the progress made in counseling stays there, and when we leave, the same issues come up with no sign of the insight seen in session. At this point, we have barely spoken since our argument last night and I find myself just wanting to avoid him for a while. Am I being too sensitive? And if not, how do I get him to see that what he is saying is inappropriate, without him just fixating on the label of sexist?
A: A lot of the time, when someone says, “It was just a joke,” what they mean is “I want to be able to say whatever I want without being asked what I mean.” Which is not really what a joke is, classically. I think your husband meant what he said, and he said it to you specifically for a reason—he wants you to know what he thinks of women as a group, and to understand that whatever conditional respect he offers to you is only insofar as he thinks of you as being “unlike” women. That’s what he wants you to know about him when he makes “jokes” about HR. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing and just needs you to explain it to him a little better. What he wants is to be able to say sexist things—“HR departments are ineffective because women run lousy departments,” “Zipper merges should be all-male because all men are better at reading nonverbal signals from other drivers, always check their blind spots, and have an intuitive sense of fair play”—and for your response to be somewhere between scandalized laughter (“Oh, that’s so funny! But you shouldn’t say it! You’re so bad, and yet also a bold truth-teller—a modern parrhesiastes!”) and Ed McMahon–like agreement (“Women are like that! Good thing I’m not really like other women and am cool enough to keep up with you”). That’s why whatever progress you seem to be making as a couple disappears as soon as you leave the therapist’s office. Your husband lacks the courage of his convictions to disagree with both you and your therapist, but whatever lip service he’s willing to pay to the two of you in session vanishes the minute you walk out the door. He’s more willing to pretend to agree with the therapist, I’d wager, because your therapist is a guy; but when it’s just the two of you again, you don’t warrant even that pretense.
Your husband wants to be able to say racist and sexist shit, because he believes racist and sexist things. And he wants to make sure the other people in his life know about it. The simplest explanation here is the right one. You’re not misreading the situation or being too sensitive, and there’s no sweet, palatable way to dress up your husband’s sexism so that he’s able to swallow criticism. It bothers you, and it should bother you, and his dishonesty and evasions feel unsatisfying because they are unsatisfying.
The subject line you chose for this letter, “Helping out my husband,” tells me you hope that he just doesn’t understand yet, that he needs to be taught or assisted out of his sexism because he’d never actually be sexist if he realized how it affected you or women as a group. I can understand the appeal of that line of thinking because it gives you hope, but it’s not based in reality. He’s not sexist by accident, or out of confusion, or because there’s just something intrinsically funny about a department run by women; he’s sexist on purpose because he likes it and he can get away with it. That doesn’t mean you have to leave him if you don’t want to, and it doesn’t mean he can’t have other good qualities or sometimes treat some individual women well. But whatever happens next in your marriage, I hope you can allow yourself to acknowledge reality, even if he won’t.
Q. Engagement news: For most of my life, my mom and I had a good relationship. However, two years ago I came out as trans to her, and things didn’t go well. Things were tense between us for months, exploding into a tearful argument on Christmas Day of that year.
She invited me home again for Christmas 2018 and promised things would be better; she would try to use the name I chose for myself and my pronouns, and she apologized for hurting me. I accepted the invitation, eager to patch things up. When I got there, things were just as bad as the previous Christmas and I felt even more hurt. I also learned that she’s been keeping my transness a secret from the rest of the family, and I went along with it because I was scared.
In the time since that first Christmas, I have started dating someone, and I think she is going to ask me to marry her soon! I could not be more excited. But sometimes I do think about my mom and I get scared. It hurts me to keep secrets from her that are this huge, but I am scared of how she’ll react to me saying, “Surprise! I’m going to be married soon to a person you’ve never heard about!” Furthermore, I worry she will say something hurtful to my girlfriend, who is also trans. And of course, I am frightened of getting pressured into coming home for Christmas again this year; I look more and more feminine every day and I likely couldn’t keep this secret from the rest of the family even if I wanted to. What should I do?
A: Congratulations on your upcoming engagement! I can understand your trepidation at sharing more personal news with your mother, given how she responded to your last big announcement. It sounds like right now you don’t really trust yourself to say, “No, I’m not coming home for Christmas” and mean it—what kind of support would you need from your partner/a therapist/your friends/yourself in order to make that “No” stick? Christmas comes every year; you’ve spent the last two locked in a pretty painful rut with your family. Taking a single year off to rest, reflect, regroup, and spend time with people who respect you and treat you with kindness is hardly exiling yourself from your family forever. It might make staying home a little easier when you remember that this isn’t a permanent decision and that there will be plenty of opportunities to celebrate the holidays with your family if and when they’re able to behave themselves.
But you don’t have to have the Christmas conversation with your mother just yet; it sounds like right now all you want to tell her is that you’re seeing someone and it’s getting serious. If you’re worried about her reaction, I’d recommend sharing the news with her in a way that doesn’t give her a lot of room for response, either in a brief phone call or over email. Don’t break the news in a way that suggests you’ve been keeping something from her or that you feel guilty or defensive—keep it relatively simple and upbeat: “By the way, I wanted to let you know I’ve been seeing someone and it’s getting serious. Her name is _____ and we met ______.” Throw in another sentence or two about what she does and how you feel about her, and let that be that. If your mother is upset that she hasn’t been privy to the up-to-the-minute details of your personal life, I think you have grounds to acknowledge reality: She’s created a lot of distance between the two of you over the past few years. This new distance is the direct result of her decision not to deal with your transition (not to mention her habit of promising not to antagonize you in order to convince you to visit home, then springing emotional traps on you).
It will also help to talk this over with your girlfriend, especially if you think there’s any chance that she’ll want to meet your mother—what lines can you two agree upon in advance to draw with her? It will help to have an idea in mind before you try introducing them, so that if your mother says something deliberately cruel, you’ll be ready to cut the visit short. I get that you want to be close with your mother, and that you don’t have a history of standing up to her, so a lot of this boundary setting may feel unfamiliar and challenging; I’d recommend seeing a therapist (either with your partner or by yourself) as you figure out how to do something unprecedented in your family history.
Q. Driving quandary: I am a woman in my late-30s dating a man in his 40s. We get along very well and have wonderful conversation. I find myself falling more and more in love with him with the conversation that we have. He is very intelligent and family-orientated. My dilemma is … driving. He has never owned a car and does not drive anywhere! My family members say that I am wasting my time and energy because he is what they label a “man-child.”
I really like him, but we have not discussed his reasoning for not driving. I truly believe that everyone in my family really wants me to get married soon and doesn’t see any potential in our relationship. I have researched online to see what could be the cause of him not driving, and I read about agoraphobia. Do you think I should bring it up and question this whole thing about driving? For the record, we have been together for one-and-a-half years.
A: Sure, you can ask your boyfriend why he doesn’t drive! There’s no reason you have to surreptitiously research why he might not drive when you could just ask him. You don’t have to copy your family’s approach and say, “What on earth is the matter with you, that you don’t drive?” There are plenty of reasons not to drive (it’s expensive, it’s dangerous, the Earth is, you know, kind of melting!), and as long as he’s able to get himself around town either by walking, taking public transport, biking, or using cabs or ride-sharing apps, I don’t think it really matters whether he has a driver’s license. But certainly, since you’re curious and you two are growing closer, there’s no reason not to talk to him about it. And maybe talk to your relatives a little less about it.
Q. Desire discrepancy: My girlfriend and I (we’re both lesbians) have been dating for about a year and living together for a few months. When we have sex it is amazing, but it is very occasional, and getting more so as time goes on. When we first went a while without having sex early in the relationship, I tried to have a conversation about it and was very clear that sex and physical affection are crucial for me and that if she was uninterested in sex we would have to find some other way of relating that met those needs, like nonsexual sensual touching or masturbation together, or this wouldn’t work. She originally said we didn’t have a desire discrepancy and it was a phase related to her depression, but now she says it isn’t.
Every time I’ve tried to talk with her about it, she gets extremely upset and shuts the conversation down. She says in theory she does want to be having sex and to give it time, but I don’t really know what it feels like for her, if it is lack of arousal, revulsion, or traumatic response, and even if this is her typical preference that she’s trying to adjust. I know trying to talk to her about this is making it worse, but I am at a point where I am crying daily about feeling unloved and don’t feel like I can keep ignoring it, which is her proposed solution as she is not unhappy or feeling a lack in the relationship. I love her very much and have no desire to seek sex outside the relationship, because it is not about getting off for me—it is about sex as a foundational aspect of love. I more than anything would never want to pressure her even inadvertently, and I am at a loss.
I recently asked if we could plan for a serious conversation and told her that communicating about this—and in general—is something we need to figure out if our relationship is going to last. That conversation blew up then calmed down with her saying she would work on communicating better but not wanting to talk about how. I’m worried that if we can’t even talk about talking there is nowhere else to go. Is there anything else we can try? Should I back off on bringing this up?
A: You’ve only been together for a year, and you’re already crying every single day. I understand that you love her, but this is not sustainable. She’s not able to have clear, honest, loving conversations with you around sex and intimacy, and that takes a serious emotional toll on you. You definitely should not back off on this. This is hugely important! Barely a year into your relationship and only a few months into living together—you two should still be in a honeymoon phase, not sleeping in separate bedrooms and crying yourself to sleep. You’ve even tried telling her that you’re not sure you can stay in a relationship with her the way things are going now, and nothing’s changed. Surely that tells you all you need to know about what you can expect from her. As you say, it’s not that you need constant sex regardless of how she feels or what she wants—you just want to experience some sort of physical intimacy and to know what she’s thinking and feeling. For whatever reason, she doesn’t want that with you. I think it’s time for you to start looking for somewhere else to live.
Q. Houseguests allergic to house: I am in my mid-20s and am lucky enough to have many high school and college friends who come to visit me in the city I now live in. The problem is, many of them are allergic to cats but still want to stay with me—and my cat!—in my one-bedroom apartment. They say it will be fine, even when I stress how much the cat has dandered the place up. Then the weekend becomes about their itchy throats and sneezing and Benadryl needs, and I get deflated and defensive of my cat and apartment. I do what I can (vacuum, clean sheets and pillows, keep the cat away from their stuff) but nonetheless, it’s definitively a Cat Apartment. None of us can afford a hotel. (That’s why we visit friends!) Any advice on how to navigate this frequent dynamic?
A: “I’m so glad you’re coming to visit [city]! I can’t have guests with cat allergies in my home, since I’ve tried in the past to de-dander the place and it just hasn’t worked. Let me know if you’re able to find a cheap hotel or another friend to stay with, and I’d love to take you out for dinner. Otherwise, I’ll see you next time I visit home.”
Q. Ultimatums?: Is there a difference between an ultimatum in a relationship and honestly expressing a need that is also a deal-breaker? Ultimatums are so demonized in sitcoms and movies, but it seems to me that saying, “I want this and if you can’t give it to me, we need to go our separate ways” is a healthy communication strategy. Is the difference entirely in the delivery of the request? Whether or not the request is objectively (subjectively?) reasonable? (For example, Holly on The Office ready to get married, Emily on Friends saying Ross can’t see Rachel.) I’m not necessarily ready to issue an ultimatum in my relationship, so I guess I’m looking for advice on how to start a conversation about what we both want and need in the future and how much either us can or will compromise.
A: It does not matter at all what characters on television do! They are made-up people in pretend relationships, and while their scripted actions may communicate something about the writers’ ideas of romance, their primary purpose is to entertain, not to lay down certain immutable truths about what we can and can’t ask of our partners. I understand, obviously, that you’re not worried you have to do what TV characters do and that your question has more to do with whether they’re reflecting certain universal social norms that you’ve somehow missed out on, but I really want to reassure you on this front: Please feel completely free to disregard what romantic relationships look like on TV as you conduct your own. You say that you’re not contemplating issuing an ultimatum yourself but that you’d like to have an honest conversation about your romantic needs that could, potentially, lead to an ultimatum someday. That’s absolutely fine! More than fine, it’s totally normal and necessary to figuring out whether you two are suited for one another in the long run. Ultimatums can be reasonable or unreasonable, just as break-ups can be amicable or hostile (or somewhere in between). Knowing what you want and what you need and what you’re willing to compromise on (like, say, travel schedules or what city you live in) and what you’re not (whether or not to have kids, lending money, whatever) are good things, and necessary to a functioning relationship. I think you’ve hit on a key distinction between what makes an ultimatum either reasonable or unreasonable; namely, that the ultimatum offerer doesn’t make a value judgment about the ultimatum receiver, but just says “This is what I need in a relationship, and it’s important enough to me that I’d end ours over it.”
Q. Re: Helping out my husband: I read something once that said if your spouse/partner thinks the group you belong to is stupid or some other negative or seems to really dislike them, don’t be fooled—at some point they will think the same of you. Telling yourself you are the exception is foolish
A: That seems pretty straightforwardly true. I don’t think the letter writer’s husband is pretending to think women as a group are inferior/incompetent. And being “an exception” is always, always contingent on your “good behavior,” and can be snatched away at any second.
Q. I moved to Dubai and told my parents I’m in Tokyo: Recently I decided to get a job teaching English abroad. I felt fortunate to get hired exactly where I wanted to go and am now happily living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The problem is my parents. I knew they would be appalled at the idea of their young daughter going to live in the Middle East, even in a relatively safe place like Dubai. So … I told them I had accepted a job in Tokyo. I’ve been living in Dubai for eight months, and as far as I know they haven’t caught on. I’ve made up stories about struggling with sushi and the Japanese language and even spent a fair amount of time learning about Japan to make my lie more believable. My parents don’t use social media, so there isn’t much danger of them finding out via that route. I love my life here in Dubai and would like to renew my contract, but I feel awful for lying to them! I also feel awful imagining how they will feel if they ever find out the truth. Please help me figure out what to do that will hurt my parents (and me!) the least.
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