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, everybody. Let’s chat!
Q. Soon to be separated: I’m leaving for college in a couple of months. My newish boyfriend thinks we’re staying together, while I’d like to break up before we leave. Do I have an obligation to talk through this with him before we break up so as not to blindside him? Or do I just wait until the last minute? He’s thinking long-term and I’m not, and it feels like I’m inevitably going to break his heart.
A: If you think you could enjoy spending the rest of the summer with him as he blithely discusses your long-term plans, acting like a dog who thinks he’s about to move upstate to a big farm where there’s lots of room to play, all while you have to dodge questions about the future with a lot of vague evasions, then sure, you can wait until the last second. But if that idea makes you feel slightly worn out—and a bit like a jerk—then you should tell him now.
Q. Heroin help: My cousin has been a heroin addict since her late teens. We are both women in our early 30s now. She has been in and out of rehab and jail multiple times, with the time between spent at her mother’s house, a motel, or on the streets. For years I tried to support her, but in recent years I’ve stopped trying and have realized just how mad at her I am. She has stolen from family (including my parents) and has made her mother’s life a living hell whenever she’s in it. Her mother is one of the best people I know, like another mother to me. Whenever her daughter relapses, my mother, my wife, and I are her primary support system, along with a few close friends, a role I am more than happy to take on. She’s been home again for a month or so and has dropped out of the latest treatment program she’s tried. I know addiction is an illness and opioids are causing a crisis in our country right now—but I am so angry at my cousin for all the hurt she’s caused, most especially to her own mother. The only thing that could sway me is a heartfelt apology or something acknowledging the pain she’s caused, and I don’t see that happening any time soon. She is just … vacant.
Any time she is home, my aunt wants to integrate her into the family again. She comes to one holiday or so, sits around, and that’s it. She’s off to jail or the streets in a matter of weeks. Now she’s home again, and my aunt suggested to my mother that “we get the girls together soon.” How on earth can I decline, while also still remaining supportive to my aunt? I don’t want her to stop coming to me to help with things around the house or with questions about her cellphone or whatever—but I fear she will if I say anything about her daughter. I also fear that she won’t come to me or my mother the next time her daughter leaves if we say something now, and I don’t want her to be alone if that happens. What do I do?
A: The first thing I want for you is a place where you can acknowledge and share your deep, profound anger with someone who’s not directly related to the situation, whether that be with a therapist, at a meeting of Al-Anon, with a friend who lives far away, in a journal, etc. Just because it’s not productive to share the first flush of that anger with either your aunt or your cousin doesn’t mean you have to ignore it or push it down; your anger can coexist with compassion for your cousin’s addiction. As you say yourself, at present she’s vacant whenever she comes around; she’s not currently in a state where she’s able to acknowledge the hurt she’s caused other people.
In the meantime, bear in mind that your aunt has not actually asked you to do anything that you want to say no to yet. She merely said to your mother something along the lines of getting together. It may very well be that she knows this is unlikely or impossible, and merely said something as anodyne as “Let’s get the girls together soon” because the pain of acknowledging how far gone her daughter is from being able to be in a safe, consistent, loving relationship with the rest of her family felt too great. But if she does eventually ask you to make time to socialize with your cousin and you know you can’t do that, there are ways to acknowledge your own pain that don’t require dismissing her categorically as a person. “I’m glad [Cousin] is home, but I’m trying to deal with some of the pain her addiction has brought into my life. I’m not ready to get together just yet. I hope you’ll understand why I need more time, and that you know how much I love you.”
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Q. Bullied camper: I am a college student working this summer at a day camp for 5- to 12-year-olds. One of our older kids is being physically and socially bullied, and I don’t know what to do about it. I have brought it to my bosses’ attention several times, but beyond punishing kids when it gets physical, they don’t seem all that able to do anything about it. It has gotten to the point where she will often not play with the other campers because they will verbally attack her for small, typical mistakes that all the kids make (kicking the ball over the fence, lacking spatial awareness, etc.). The problem is that it is not one child or a group of children doing this—it is most of the kids. Another counselor and I have been trying to make things easier for her by playing with just her sometimes, but I don’t think that’s a great long-term solution because a) she’ll miss out on a lot of fun activities and b) it will be perceived as favoritism, which will make things even worse. How do I make it stop? And if that’s not possible, how do I make this summer bearable for her?
A: I think it’s a little worrying that the people running this camp don’t seem to have much in the way of a policy about how to handle bullying; presumably when you’re working with kids between the ages of 5 and 12 every day for an entire summer, bullying is going to come up more than once. It’s worth revisiting with your bosses, I think, and pointing out that this isn’t an isolated incident but an ongoing pattern that involves social isolation as well as physical violence not just from a few kids but from almost all of them. They might also want to consider talking to the girl’s parents, who presumably don’t know their daughter is going through such a tough time at camp yet. I think it’s lovely that you and another counselor go out of your way to play with her sometimes, especially because I don’t really think it means she’s going to “miss out” on a lot of fun—she was always going to be excluded from that fun by the other kids. I wonder if there’s a little more in-the-moment intervening you can do, since it sounds like you’re more often present when the other kids are bullying her, and you can redirect their energy before it reaches the point of having to punish kids for hitting or kicking—the sort of gentle-but-serious “Play nice”/“Give her a turn”/“We don’t talk like that” that is the camp counselor’s bread and butter.
If anyone else has more specific suggestions, especially if any of you are former camp counselors, I’d be happy to publish them. It’s been a while since I had to wrangle summer campers, and I may have grown pretty rusty.
Q. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition: I’ve been living in Spain for the past five years in an area with a very small Jewish population. I am usually the first Jewish person anyone has ever met, and for the most part that is met with openness, if sometimes accompanied by thoughtless, though perhaps well-meaning, comments. I have a new co-worker who’s half-American named Jan, and we really get along well. But recently Jan brought her boyfriend to a work barbecue (I was supposed to be there but fell sick at the last minute), and I learned from a co-worker that her boyfriend declared that Jews are secretly controlling governments to destroy everything. She knows I’m Jewish but still brought her anti-Semitic boyfriend to an event I was supposed to be at. Am I being too sensitive? To what extent should I hold her accountable for her significant other’s opinions? If she’s dating him, is that an endorsement for how he thinks? I feel stupid for feeling this worked up. I also heard this information secondhand, so I have no reason—or real desire—to bring it up. What’s the best way to navigate this?
A: Here are my answers to your questions, in order: No, you are not being too sensitive. To what extent should you hold her accountable for her significant other’s opinions? To the extent that she brings him to work-related picnics where he can share his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with her co-workers. If she’s dating him, is that an endorsement for how he thinks? Well, she’s at least decided she’s comfortable bringing him around the people she works with and didn’t contradict him in public the last time he started spouting off.
If I were in your position, I’d take her aside, acknowledge that you heard what happened, and ask her at the very least to let you know if she plans on bringing him to future company events so you can make other arrangements. Ideally this would prompt her to not bring him at all out of a healthy sense of embarrassment! But I don’t think you have to pretend you didn’t hear about it; it sounds like you trust the veracity of this eyewitness account, and you shouldn’t have to keep silent and be uncomfortable about something that should embarrass her. If you have a really strong relationship with your supervisor, you might bring this up with them; again, ideally everyone in an office has a similar idea of what semiprofessional, not-strictly-at-work-but-still-with-my-co-workers types of conversation look like, but if people seem to need a refresher, now might be a great time.
Q. Catfished by Dad: I recently received an Instagram request from some anon with no picture. I looked at some of the account’s followers and realized I knew many of them from different places I’d lived, and some were childhood friends. My parents are both in their 70s and have been separated for the past 11 years after my dad was caught in an affair. I called my mother to see if she had ever heard the name on the account, and she confessed that it was my father. He had done the same thing to her and my sister months earlier on Facebook. She didn’t tell me about the deception because she knew it would hit me hard. I did not respond to his affair with nonchalance. She confronted him about his Facebook deception, and he confessed that it was indeed him under this anon account. When she asked why, he couldn’t give a reason.
Prudence, I am a 52-year-old man, and I’m baffled about how to handle this deception. He must truly think I am so stupid that I can’t figure out he’s behind this secret account. It’s not as if we don’t speak and he’s desperate for contact. I just spent four days with him. Should I confront him about this or move on? It feels like a seriously creepy thing has happened to me when all he had to do was set up an honest account and ask to follow me. We do not have a relationship where this could be construed as a joke.
A: My guess is less that he thinks you’re stupid and more that he felt a little self-conscious about pulling such an odd, easily identifiable move and decided not to think about it too much. If I were to venture a further guess, I’d wager that at least part of him wonders what kind of relationship you two might have had if you’d never learned of his affair and was hoping to recreate some sort of idealized version through an account that wasn’t immediately recognizable as his. But that is a shot in the dark, and I might be way off base. I think you should ask your father what he meant by it. Stress your confusion and uncertainty, and ask as gently and as openly as you can to encourage him to respond rather than shut down: “I got a friend request from an anonymous account that I think is pretty clearly you, but it took me a few minutes to figure that out. I can’t understand why you’d do that when we’re already in contact. Can you tell me more about what you were thinking?”
Q. Friend in crisis: I’ve been friends with “Jack” for over 10 years. He is truly my best friend whom I can confide everything in. He is good friends with my husband too (he was in our wedding), and he adores our daughter. Jack has had a rough few years; he moved out of state a couple of years ago to advance in a company, only to be fired last year and struggle to find a job. He had financial issues that led him to move back in with his parents (we’re both in our early 30s, so he wasn’t too happy about it), and he is still two states away from us. He lost everything when he moved back in with his parents. He gave us his car and most of his possessions, and I know it was a major blow to his self-esteem. He is doing better now with a steady job and working his way back up to getting a new car, apartment, etc. I’ve had concerns about him for a while, though. He has high anxiety and depression, and he recently told me he has been diagnosed with an eating disorder. We communicate mostly through text and social media, so sometimes when we’re talking about these issues, I don’t know what to say. I feel like when I ask him questions to draw him out and get him to open up, I just sound judgmental and unhelpful. How can I better support my friend and offer love and acceptance when we’re still so far away from each other?
A: I think sharing that exact concern with him is your next move: “Sometimes when we’re talking about really serious issues over text, I worry that I say the wrong thing or respond awkwardly. If I ask you questions to draw you out, I worry they sound judgmental and unhelpful, when really all I want is to know more about what you’re thinking and to communicate how much I care about you.” It might also be the right time to suggest having an occasional phone call to replace some of your texting, so you can hear each other’s voices and go a little bit deeper in your conversations. I think Jack would be pretty open to that, and it might make you feel like you have more options when it comes to reading and adjusting to his responses in the moment. This sounds like a lovely, meaningful friendship, and I’m sure it will mean a lot to Jack that you’ve given so much thought to how you can better support him.
Q. Do I need to come out now that I’m straight? In high school and college, I identified as bisexual. I had, and acted on, crushes on both men and women, though for multiple reasons mostly related to living in a very conservative area, I never seriously dated a woman. By the end of college, at the risk of sounding like an evangelical talking point, I was no longer as interested in women, and eventually switched to identifying as straight. I don’t want to contribute to bi erasure, but in my case I’m just not anymore, and I’d hate my life story to be used in support of homophobic or hateful arguments. My question is: Should I tell my boyfriend that I used to be bi? I haven’t been actively hiding anything; it just hasn’t come up in the five years we’ve been together.
A: If someone else wants to make homophobic arguments, they will do so. Your personal history is not going to be what makes or breaks that decision. If you decide to talk to your boyfriend, it should only be because you think you will derive something meaningful from that conversation; you will neither help nor hurt other members of the LGBT community by discussing your own life with your boyfriend. You can, however, help yourself, if that conversation makes you feel more at ease, relaxed, or comfortable around him.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think you need to conflate “bisexual” with “likely to date women again in the future” or even “every bit as interested in dating women as in dating men, at every moment in my life, reliably and consistently.” If you were truly interested in women as well as men at the time and got something out of your dating history, then I’m not so sure you stopped being bisexual so much as grew more comfortable in your own end of the spectrum and clarified your interests. All of which is a very roundabout way of saying: You have not harmed anyone by dating women in the past and dating men now, you are perfectly free to discuss your own experience without worrying that it either reinforces or supplants any narratives about bisexual people, and you don’t have to do anything.
Q. Re: Bullied camper: I’m a former camp counselor. First, it’s your job as a camp counselor to step in when bullying happens. When you see it happening, step in and say, “Jane, we don’t treat campers that way. Please be nice, otherwise you’ll have to sit out of the game for a little bit.” Or “Guys, let’s make room for Matilda in this game. We’re the kind of camp where everyone gets included.” Or “Alex, did you just kick Matilda? That’s unacceptable. Please come sit by me for a few minutes. We don’t hit or kick people at this camp.”
Second, choose activities that will reinforce and model good behavior. During story time, read books where kids go out of their way to include others. Every morning, go over the rules of the camp, which include being nice to others. Ask for examples of what it means to be nice. Publicly praise kids when they are nice to others. If you see a child eating or playing alone, call over a kid who you know is generally nice or eager to please and say, “I see Matilda is eating all alone. I bet it would make her feel really special if you invited her to eat with you.” Honestly, I feel your pain because there are some kids who seem prone to cattiness, but you have to call it out every time. Again, every time. Or it will grow into a weird Lord of the Flies situation.
A: I kind of love that odd sort of “We don’t” phrasing particular to teachers/camp counselors/babysitters; it sounds like a ruling set down by a council of elders in the long, long ago. I think this is great, specific advice that will help set the tone. Since right now it seems like almost every kid is being a jerk to Matilda, it’s important for the counselors to step in and do a lot of reinforcing, especially early on, when it comes to what the kids can’t get away with. I especially like the idea of positively reinforcing the kids who go out of their way to be kind (although I can imagine attempts to game that system kicking off pretty quickly), and I think the point about calling it out every time is well made.
Q. Re: Bullied camper: I worked as a program director at a camp for years, and sometimes it helps if you can enlist a few especially empathetic and kind kids to help. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but kids love jobs and being trusted by adults, so maybe you can pull a few aside and see what they say—“Hey, [Camper] seems to be having a rough time. What do you think is going on with that?” There might be something you aren’t witnessing that would shed some light on how to stop it. (For example, if she’s not showering regularly, you can definitely talk to her about that!) You could also say, “I can tell you care about others a lot. Do you think you could help out by making sure to include [Camper] in [activity] or saying something if she’s being bullied and I don’t see?” Kids don’t have the same capacity for self-reflection, and a few well-placed peers who are well-liked and not participating in bullying can really help turn the tide.
A: Thanks for this. I think it’s important to remember, especially since almost every other kid right now is targeting the “odd girl out” in the exact same way, that these kids don’t yet have the adult capacity for reflecting on and changing their behavior even if it goes against the grain. Once you have a sizable minority of campers doing something different, it’ll be much easier to get the rest on board. That doesn’t mean she’s likely to become the most popular girl at camp, but you have a lot of room to dictate tone here.
Q. Should I warn the women I date that I’m a sociopath? I’m a 31-year-old male and consider myself to be a borderline sociopath. I view this as a neural development disorder where many people fall along a spectrum, not something to be “treated” or changed. I have a strong “logical morality” and do not wish harm to anyone, but I do come first and don’t commonly feel guilt or remorse. This seems to work in most areas of my life, but dating is a problem. By all recognizable accounts I am easygoing, successful, charming, and normal. However, I do not feel love the way I imagine many people do. My love for someone peaks around the two-month mark in the relationship and I can feel that way for nearly anyone who meets my dating criteria. But I have been the “love of their life” for many women, who form incredibly deep bonds and end up devastated after they realize our relationship will not progress and it ends for seemingly no reason. In some of these relationships I have even been entirely up front that I simply don’t “feel” the way most people do and they have not been deterred. So, what am I to do? I don’t enjoy hurting others, but I do enjoy when others care for me. Do I just continue this pattern throughout life, enjoying each relationship for what it is and knowing that if the woman gets her heart broken she will eventually get over it and go on to better relationships? Or is that callous and morally demanding of a better approach? Read what Prudie had to say.
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