Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. To snoop, or not to snoop? My boyfriend and I are currently living together. Though we had loosely planned to spend our lives together, I was recently offered a dream job several hundred miles away. He is in a good position at work and his whole community is here, so after many conversations, we’ve decided that I’ll go, he’ll stay, and we’ll break up when I leave. We’re going to try to stay friends and leave the door open to reconsidering a romantic relationship if it makes sense down the line. Sounds like everything is awesome and we have great communication, right? Plot twist: He’s been acting super weird and distant lately, including spending a lot of time away from home. I’ve been getting some mega cheating-on-me vibes, but I have no conclusive evidence.
I’ve noticed that he intentionally angles his phone away from me while texting, which he’s never done before. We’ve also been having way less sex than usual. Then, he came home one day from the gym with what looked like a hickey on his neck. (He said he got it from the exercise he was doing.) I also met a girl he’s been spending some time with in a hobby he participates in, and she acted super weird around me and seemed surprised to find out that he had a girlfriend.
I asked him point-blank if he was cheating and he denied it, and in a fit of anger he said it wouldn’t even count as cheating if he slept with someone else since our relationship has a clear expiration date in a few weeks. Later he said he felt terrible and didn’t mean that at all and agreed that of course it would be cheating. That helped assuage my feelings of discomfort for a few days, but then he started acting weird again.
What should I do? Maybe the distance he’s putting between us is just his way of grieving the relationship, but it’s making me so miserable sharing a space with him. How do I get through the next few weeks? (I definitely cannot afford to rent another place short-term and have no friends nearby who are close enough that I could stay with them for this long.) I’ll also never stop wondering if he cheated on me when we’re trying to stay friends. Is it ever OK to snoop through a significant other’s phone? He’s told me his password, but I have never dreamed of using it before this.
A: I think the first opportunity to reassess your assumptions is in this sentence: “Sounds like everything is awesome and we have great communication, right?” Because while the communication does sound mostly honest, it does not strike me that everything is awesome; it sounds like the two of you had been talking about spending your lives together, and then you got a great job opportunity and he decided he didn’t want to spend his life with you. That doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person or mean that he doesn’t deserve your friendship further down the line, but I wonder if part of you has been trying to paper over your own feelings of hurt or loss at the impending breakup by leaning so heavily on the “we’re going to be best friends, and maybe someday he’ll decide he’d be willing to move to be with me” sunny-side version of things. It was, perhaps, a bit naïve to assume you two could continue cheerfully living together and dating for the next few weeks while knowing you were about to break up. That doesn’t mean you invited this behavior or that it’s your fault for wanting to put a positive spin on things, but it does make sense to me that this is a harder and more complicated situation than you’d initially hoped it would be.
But I don’t think going through his phone is going to make things any better. I think your best option is to be honest: “Things have changed really drastically since the last time we talked about this relationship. I know it’s hard for both of us. I’m finding myself constantly suspicious and insecure that you’re sleeping with someone else, and I don’t like that feeling. I don’t want to interrogate you or put you on the spot; I just think it’s better to acknowledge that things between us are effectively over and that maybe the best thing to do now is to give each other as much space as we can while still living together. I still hope we can eventually be friends, and I still care about you, but I don’t want to spend my last few weeks here worrying about where you got your gym hickey from or trying to pretend that we’re just going to be a happy couple and then break up on demand. How does that sound to you?”
Q. Massage conundrum: I need to know if what I did was wrong. For starters, I am a late-30s cis straight woman dating a man I love. I think I may be bi-curious, but that’s not too important here. My partner and I have a fabulous sex life, and we sometimes dirty-talk about threesomes or group sex. One day I went for a massage to my usual gal for a sore shoulder. Afterward, I commented to my boyfriend how great the massage was, and that night during sex, he made a few dirty, suggestive comments about how good my rubdown had made me feel that day. I’ve started incorporating fantasies about the massage lady into my dirty talk with my boyfriend during sex. This has been going on for about four weeks, and it really turns me on and is fun. Yesterday I went for another massage and I felt myself getting mildly turned on. This woman is very beautiful, and her massage was so wonderful, and I think the dirty talk with my boyfriend hyped up the fantasy in my mind. Long story short, I can admit I was loving the massage more than usual, and by the time it was done I was worked up. I never let on, though. The masseuse left the room after saying what she always says, “Take a few minutes to relax before you dress.” So, during my few minutes I “took care of myself” under the sheet, ever so quietly and actually with lightning speed. I’m talking 45 seconds. After the glorious massage it was a sensory overload.
But now I have remorse. Am I a pervert? Have I crossed a line here? I didn’t tell my boyfriend about it during sex last night, even though it was on the tip of my tongue. I had to stop myself from telling him because I wasn’t sure if I’d crossed any laws of decency. If you reversed the situation, and he told me he did that at the physio clinic, I’d tell him it was inappropriate. Also I feel a bit guilty for disrespecting my massage gal’s office with my dirty acts. But on the other hand, pardon the phrase, it felt so good.
A: I almost feel more weirded out that you referred to your masseuse as “your usual gal”! But yes, you have correctly identified the moment you crossed the line; it’s one thing to privately eroticize a good massage or incorporate it into pillow talk at home, and it’s another to get yourself off at someone else’s workplace. The whole furtiveness and “shame” aspect of this situation is part of what got you off, I think, so I’d encourage you not to wallow in how “badly” you behaved, since that might act as an incentive to do it again once you’ve paired glory/bliss/relief with guilt/perversion/remorse. It’s not about “disrespecting” an office with “dirtiness” (again, that kind of language still sounds pretty masturbatory!); it’s about recognizing that what’s an indulgent experience for you is your masseuse’s job. You shouldn’t get yourself off at her workplace. Wait until you get home.
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Q. Is this hopeless? My husband and I, both in our 70s, have two married children, both in their mid-40s. My husband admittedly had lots of anger as the children were growing up, and (since I was raised in a similar household) I did not adequately protect the children or confront my husband. They were not physically abused, but all three of us were emotionally abused. He is on a mood stabilizer now, and just the fact of retirement has helped him to calm down. In addition, I have gotten stronger and I no longer tolerate his anger to the same extent. Our daughter has made peace with this and with her father; we have a reasonably good relationship with her and her family. Our son, however, has not. He did try once to discuss it with his father via a letter, and his father got very defensive, made lots of excuses, and denied or did not believe what our son was telling him. As a result, our son wants nothing to do with his father. And of course, that means that I don’t get to see our son or his family either—he lives far away. Our son will occasionally talk to me on the phone or via text, but he is adamant that he wants nothing to do with his father. My husband says that this makes him sad, and I think it does, but I have asked him several times to write a letter to our son, and he refuses. Is there anything I can do? Anything I can suggest to either one of them? Or do I just resign myself to living out my days without seeing half my family?
A: This sounds really painful, and I’m so sorry that you feel so isolated and powerless right now. I do think that your son is making a healthy and self-protective decision, and no matter how much you might want to, you cannot make your husband sorry for the abuse he committed if he isn’t. While it’s an unreservedly good thing that he’s benefited from medication and no longer flies into unpredictable rages, it doesn’t erase the past, and mood-stabilizing medication can never replace meaningful emotional work, genuine attempts at amends, or a sincere commitment to change. It may be that if you spoke to your son about the possibility of a solo visit that he might be open to letting you visit him and his family by yourself, but I don’t think you should waste any more time and energy trying to convince either him to forgive his father or his father to offer an apology he clearly doesn’t feel is necessary. You might, however, consider whether you want to apologize to your son for the ways in which you failed to protect him growing up—it sounds like you’re able now to realize the ways in which you let him down, and that’s an apology you have every right to offer him. I’d encourage you to see a therapist by yourself so you can process some of your feelings of regret, remorse, and isolation with someone who’s a little further removed from the situation. This is a lot to deal with by yourself.
Q. Trump-loving sister wants to hug gays: My sister lives in a red state and voted for Trump. She saw a viral video recently of people offering “mom” and “dad” hugs at a Pride event. Now, she’s ordered a “Free Mom Hugs” shirt and is planning to attend an upcoming Pride event near her. I’m gay (and live in a blue state), so she keeps sending me updates on her plan. I haven’t responded, because part of me wants to ignore it and part of me wants to tell her that if she really cares about the LGBTQ community, she wouldn’t support an administration that’s harmful to the community. I want to tell her she’s being a hypocrite for hugging gays and voting against their interests. However, she’s my sister, and she’s not going to change, so if she wants to go hug gay people at Pride, who cares, right? But it still rubs me the wrong way. Do I respond or just let it go while she pursues her viral moment?
A: I imagine the moment has now passed, but I think it’s probably fair to say that your sister could stand to redirect the impulse to offer free hugs at Pride into something slightly more meaningful and practical. This is just my take, but I think lots of people at various Pride events view those “Free Parent Hugs” sideliners with a healthy dose of skepticism—it’s often well-intended, and I’m sure for some people genuinely meaningful, but it feels like it does much more for the hug offerers than the hug receivers (and the hug avoiders). Now that Pride’s over, you might take the opportunity to ask your sister if there are other ways she wants to offer support and solidarity to gay people—you might even offer one or two suggestions if she seems open.
Q. How to cry professionally: I have always been a crier. I cry at movies, at other people’s stories, and especially when I am stressed. I’ve managed to control it more as I’ve gotten older, but crying is still a very common physical response for me anytime I get stressed. Sometimes I cry just thinking about sad things that could happen. It’s incredibly embarrassing and annoying, but my husband and close friends know me well enough to not worry about it—it is relatively common for me to be having a calm, measured conversation in which tears are running down my face. However, I am in my early 30s, so it is not nearly as acceptable when it happens in the workplace. I have cried at least once in front of every boss I’ve ever had. It’s never in response to negative feedback—more when I make a mistake or feel overwhelmed. So far it hasn’t affected my ability to gain responsibility and move up in my career, but I feel certain at some point it will. When tears are streaming down your face, it’s very difficult to convince a supervisor that you are fine and the conversation can continue. Should I talk to someone about this? Should I warn my bosses when I start a new job? (God, that sounds like a nightmare conversation.) How do I proceed as an adult when I have what feels like an uncontrollable but inappropriate physical reaction to stress?
A: I think you’ve been able to handle this really well so far, and I definitely don’t think you need to warn bosses when you start a new job that sometimes you cry when you’re upset. That’s not so outside of the realm of human experience that a boss might need a warning, especially because you know how to take a break and compose yourself. It might be different if you were crying on a daily or weekly basis, but you say that it’s happened “at least once” in front of all of your bosses, implying that it’s only happened a handful of times per boss. When the moment does arise that you’re crying in front of a new employer, you can acknowledge it, grab a tissue, and compose yourself (and even ask for a minute before you resume the conversation if you think that would help), and say, “Thanks for bearing with me. This happens sometimes when I’m dealing with stress, but I’m fine to continue our conversation.”
Q. Burned out: It’s coming up on the anniversary of my dad and stepmom losing their home in a fire. They were fortunate to have time to get what was important, and they and the dog made it out safely. They have great insurance, and their new home is already in the process of being built on their old property. As far as losses go, it could have been a lot worse. Even though this ended up being the best scenario possible for a house burning down, I experienced a lot of anxiety and depression surrounding the incident. I spoke with a therapist, got myself on antidepressants, and made really great strides in my mental health. My dad and stepmom handled it in their own way, both realizing that nothing can change what happened and that all they can do is move on. They can talk about what happened, but they rarely talk about how they feel about what happened.
Lately, I’ve been falling back into my depression, to the point where I’ve really scared myself. Luckily, I am now aware of what to do when these feelings come up and have taken steps to take care of my mental health. At first I couldn’t figure out why these feelings were coming up, but it just occurred to me that the anniversary of the fire is nearing and my recent depression could be related to that. My question is, how do I handle helping my parents during this time? I know anniversaries can bring up trauma, and I want to be there for them the best way I can. However, they didn’t want to talk about how they felt when it actually happened, so I don’t want to harp on them to talk about it a year later if they still don’t want to discuss it. Maybe there really is nothing to discuss; maybe they are just fine and I’m the only one who needs to work through something! On top of it all, my dad is starting to show signs of dementia, so along with that and building a new house, it seems like overkill to be like, “Remember when you lost most of your possessions a year ago? How does that make you feel?” Help!
A: I think it might be a good idea to return to that therapist you spoke with last year and try to set up some ongoing appointments, instead of thinking of therapy as a one-and-done sort of experience. If your parents aren’t experiencing the loss of their home in the same way you are, it might feel increasingly dispiriting to try to get them to open up about it, and I want you to be able to talk about your own feelings with someone a little further removed from the situation. There’s plenty to discuss for you, and you don’t need to wait on them in order to spend time processing your complicated grief over a psychically powerful loss.
Q. Mother-daughter relationship: My oldest daughter recently got married. My other daughter was in the wedding as a maid of honor. Between the time when she ordered her dress to the day she got it fitted—about three months—she gained 20 pounds. The dress barely fit; it was a two-person struggle to get her into it. Since the wedding was another two months away from the fitting and she had been gaining weight consistently for her entire junior year of college, I was petrified that she would continue to gain, thus causing the dress not to fit at all. The dress could not be let out because of the style and seam. She would be devastated if she couldn’t get into the dress on her sister’s wedding day. It would be mortifying for her, and since we were all getting ready together, everyone in the wedding would know immediately. I don’t know what we would have done if that happened since these gowns were ordered months before the wedding. And I didn’t want to put this conversation onto her sister (the bride). So I very lovingly and gently brought up the subject and suggested that we diet together those next two months. She was upset and crying, but in the end she did diet with me and she lost 20 pounds before the wedding. The dress fit fine, and she seemed triumphant, but I still wonder if I had no business saying anything. I was just so afraid of her being devastated if she couldn’t get the gown on. Is what I did OK, or should I have stayed out of it? I love her dearly and hate the thought that I caused her embarrassment, even if it was to help her avoid much greater embarrassment.
A: I just want to reality-test some of the language you used against the worst-possible-case scenario. Had the dress not fit, your daughter would have had to find another dress in the two months between the final fitting and the ceremony itself. That’s it! Even if this was a very traditional, formal wedding, a second dress would not have ruined the wedding budget. No one would have died, or been impoverished, or ruined the wedding. Your daughter would just have worn a dress that fit. Yet the prospect of letting your daughter buy another dress brought up the following words for you: struggle, petrified, devastated, embarrassment. I think it’s important to be honest about your motivations here, and worth asking yourself why the idea of your daughter wearing a dress that fit her now-slightly-bigger body in public filled you with so much panic and embarrassment.
It’s one thing to pick up a new exercise regimen or to develop various long-term fitness goals, but pushing for a 20-pound loss in two months just for a dress is really extreme and unhealthy. You chose a much more invasive, embarrassing path and way overstepped your role as mother of the bride. You owe your daughter an apology.
Q. Re: Mother-daughter relationship: I think Prudie isn’t understanding the logistics involved. “No one would have died, or been impoverished, or ruined the wedding. Your daughter would just have worn a dress that fit” isn’t quite true. The mother was worried her daughter would continue to gain weight and not fit into the dress at all the morning of the wedding, at which point it would have been way too late. Also, if the people getting married care about having a matching wedding party (and it sounds like this was that kind of wedding) it sometimes takes up to six months to receive the dress, including tailoring, from the time of ordering. That’s just how it works, unfortunately.
A: That’s a useful clarification, and I certainly got the timeline wrong, but I still stand by my answer. Rather than double down on a situation where it looks like a dress probably won’t fit in a few months, I think it would have been better to start over somewhere else, rather than push for a crash diet. Saying, “That’s just how it works” as a justification for pushing a crying woman into losing 20 pounds in order to wear a specific dress, if true, means that weddings ought to work a little differently, and not that everyone else needs to get with the program.
Q. Re: Trump-loving sister wants to hug gays: Is it really in poor taste to offer “mom hugs” at Pride events? I am planning to stand with a sign and offer hugs at a local Pride event coming up next week (my conservative state is a little behind, ugh) because it feels to me like a pure act of connection, support, and love. But if this is considered to be trying to get viral moments, as the letter writer presented it, or seen as suspect as you proposed, then I want to rethink this.
A: I don’t think it’s in universally bad taste, and I certainly don’t speak on behalf of anyone else who might attend Pride! I think it’s become a slightly more common sight in recent years; I imagine the people who offer those hugs are motivated by a number of different impulses, some of them more self-centered, some of them more generous. I myself often experience a complicated series of responses when I see those signs: sometimes cynical, sometimes moved, sometimes overwhelmed with sadness when I think about what it would have been like to experience that sort of sentiment earlier in life, and sometimes all of that at once. I don’t want to make a ruling about whether it’s a good idea across the board, but I do think it’s important to remember that it’s just a few hours out of the year and it’s not going to be the final word on what you mean to the LGBTQ people in your life.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From How to Do It
Q. My husband makes every excuse possible not to have sex: My husband and I haven’t had intercourse in more than two years. When I first noticed our “slump,” he told me he was too busy and tired from work to have sex. After the first sexless year rolled by, he said he needed to lose weight to feel confident enough for sex.
Since, we moved to a new city last year, and he has indeed lost weight and gotten a job that requires much less take-home work. Now at least he’ll use a vibrator on me every few months, but it’s not enough. When we discuss our sex life, he’s adamant that he wants to have sex with me and promises to make it happen—this weekend, or after a particular work project is done—but those deadlines pass by without comment. I’ve stopped trying to initiate sex because the constant rejection was affecting my self-image. Other than sex, my husband and I are on the same page about every aspect of our lives, and we truly enjoy each other’s company. Leaving him would break my heart, but I can’t stand to be celibate before I even turn 30. I hate ultimatums, but is it time for that? What else can I say or do to save our relationship?
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