Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Shared bed: My fiancé is a great guy and a great dad. I love him, but I am weirded out by the fact his 11-year-old and 6-year-old daughters insist on sleeping in his bed with him. They have their own room, but come bedtime, they will plead and cajole and even cry to try to sleep with us. Their bedtime is 8:30. I usually end up migrating into the living room to finish up work or watch TV. Then I grab a blanket and sleep on the couch so I don’t wake anyone up (not that there is room for me in the bed).
Nothing hinky is going on, I swear to God, but this childish insistence on not sleeping in their own beds makes me think of toddlers. They don’t do this with their mom. We have them every other week now. My back is starting to hurt, but I am afraid to rock the boat. The girls are great and we get along, but all the advice I have been given is that stepparents need to be hands-off. My fiancé insists this is “temporary,” but it has been months. I want my bed back. I want the girls to not be screwed up, and I don’t know if I am contributing to that by stopping this or letting this continue.
A: I think your request is eminently reasonable, and it’s time to revisit this with your fiancé sometime when the girls aren’t in your room crying. It might also be worth setting up a few appointments with a couples counselor who specializes in blended families—if you are going to live with your fiancé and his kids even just part of the time, there’s a limit to how “hands-off” you can actually be. It’s perfectly reasonable and appropriate to say, “I want to be able to sleep in our bed together, and we need to figure out other ways to make sure the girls feel supported and welcome in our home besides having a last-minute, sobbing bed swap. That’s not good for them in the long run, and it’s not good for us. I know it’s hard in the moment to say no, especially when you don’t get to see them every day, but it’s not actually helping them, and it’s physically painful for me. How can we plan a different reaction to this scene so we can move on?”
Q. Funeral attendance: We unfortunately just lost my grandfather. The funeral is set for this weekend in a different state. It’s very expensive to fly into the closest airport. My mother told me that she is planning on driving there. This would be great. However, there are a couple of big problems, the first being that my husband is having surgery on Friday. I don’t want to leave him, especially since we have two very active small children. Another big issue is that I just found out my mother is traveling with her husband and my sibling. We recently had my grandmother’s funeral (not the wife of my recently deceased grandfather) and he decided to carry his gun. This was completely uncalled for and disrespectful of my grandmother, who was anti-gun. My sibling is mentally ill and has attempted to kill me. They have also threatened the lives of my children. I don’t know if I’m being paranoid, but the thought of traveling with them for 30 hours makes me very uncomfortable.
My grandmother (recently deceased grandfather’s wife) told me that she would stay with her husband if she were in my shoes. There will be an additional celebration of life at a later time for family and friends in our state. At this point, I would rather stay with my husband and go to the celebration of life. Would it be socially acceptable for me to stay with my husband instead of attending the funeral? If so, how do I tell my mother that I have changed my mind about going?
A: You are not being paranoid for not wanting to spend 30 hours with someone who has tried to kill you. Oh my God! “I can’t be around X, who as you may remember has tried to kill me, so I won’t attending the funeral. I’ll be staying at home with the kids and helping [Husband] prepare for his surgery. I love you and I hope you have a safe, meaningful time with the rest of the family.”
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Q. Come to roost: I studied abroad a decade ago and started a fling with a resident in the country in which I was visiting. We thought it’d be a fun, short-term thing, but here we are, 10 years later, still seeing each other periodically throughout the year. We’ve decided that it’s time to commit and settle down in one spot together. The issue is that I haven’t told my family about this at all in the past 10 years. At no point did I think we’d get serious, and as time went on, it felt like it’d take more explaining than it was worth. Of course, now I regret not bringing it up in the beginning. How do I introduce them? Should I start with context or wait until the questions begin?
A: Does your partner know that you haven’t told your family about them? You say you never thought you’d get serious but that you now think it’s time to settle down together. Do you actually feel seriously about them, or are you just tired of long-distance dating? By the way, that isn’t necessarily a problem; I’m not saying that overwhelming romantic feelings are the only reason you might want to move in with someone, just that it will be helpful to clarify your own motivations before you start having some big-picture conversations. It will also be helpful to figure out what you felt most uncomfortable about discussing with your family, because embarrassment or discomfort has to play at least a partial role in why you put off this conversation for a decade. Be honest with yourself about whatever that is, and then I think the best thing you can do is just tell your family. Don’t spend too much time explaining why you kept this back, but do give them a sense of what’s changed your mind over the years and how you might envision them getting to know your partner in the future. I think waiting for them to ask questions will make you feel additionally furtive and paranoid, like you’re a teenager trying to sneak out of the house after curfew. They will naturally be curious, possibly even shocked or hurt, but they will also presumably want to get to know your partner and find out more about what you two see in one another. You can tell them, “I expect you’ll have a lot of questions and that it might take a while to adjust. I totally get that and I’m available to answer anything you may be curious about.”
Q. The wedding gift problem: My girlfriend and I recently attended my colleague’s wedding. I am definitely closer to the bride, but my girlfriend is hardly distant from her. They’re both regular fixtures at after-work drinks, and they ask about one another on a regular basis. We traveled about 100 miles to attend this woman’s wedding. I paid for everything but asked my girlfriend to pay me back for her half of the hotel and gift, like we always do. (For what it’s worth, I ate the cost of transportation.) My girlfriend and I have always had an “equitable” relationship, where we split the cost of dates. That said, she’s definitely been reluctant to pay me back for her half of the hotel and gift. Was I wrong to ask? She’s always prided herself on her independence. She’s even made a point of bragging to her friends that we split dinner bills. Did I do something wrong?
A: I suppose it depends on how long you and your girlfriend have been together! Mostly, though, I think it’s rarely wrong to ask to split a bill. The only thing I might have done differently is checking in beforehand, rather than afterward, since it sounds like this was the first time you two went to a wedding together, and she might have thought you were bringing her as a guest (and historically, at least, traveling with someone as a guest usually means your costs are covered). It doesn’t strike me as inconsistent with her earlier pride in your generally equitable relationship; I can imagine she really enjoys feeling like she’s able to pay her own way most of the time but also likes the idea of occasionally being treated. Your position was still a reasonable one, but it might be a good idea to revisit the conversation as a couple and establish a strategy for talking about more expensive trips and purchases before they happen so you two are on the same page.
Q. Re: Shared bed: A hunch: The 11-year-old is trying to break you two up. Counseling may need to include her.
A: Oh gosh, I really disagree with that—or rather, I disagree with your suggested response to that particular assumption. I think that when an 11-year-old is crying on a nightly basis, if the two possibilities are “She’s distressed and doesn’t have a lot of great coping strategies for her anxieties about her relationship to her dad after he and her mom split up” or “She is craftily trying to engineer the downfall of her father’s new relationship,” the former wins over the latter every time. She may not be thrilled about her dad’s new relationship and may feel isolated and scared, but I don’t think this is a sinister, conscious strategy so much as a pretty age-appropriate attempt to push at a boundary to receive comfort and reassurance. So inviting the 11-year-old to couples counseling with her dad’s new fiancée in order to get her to knock it off would be a touch too far over the limit, I think. Better to treat her with love, compassion, and slightly firmer boundaries—and the way to do that is to talk with her father first.
Q. Pastors’ response to abortion: I was assaulted in May by several people at a party. (I have no memory of what happened, fortunately.) A few weeks ago, I discovered I was pregnant. I considered an abortion and went through all the formal procedures to schedule one. I didn’t tell anyone, but at the last minute I panicked and contacted my pastors for support. They are pro-life but said they would support me regardless of what I chose—they would come with me to the appointments and not condemn me, or they would support me if I decided to keep it. They were genuine and have a strong history of being compassionate in situations where other types may be judgmental.
I had a first-trimester miscarriage shortly after I decided not to get an abortion. My pastors helped me find counseling, offered to let me stay with them, and were generally wonderful. I still haven’t told many people what happened to me, but I am starting to tell more people I trust. Most have been lovely, but many (including a counselor and faculty member) kept saying that my pastors pressured me into keeping the baby and that I really wanted an abortion. I find these claims so uncomfortable, because they did not pressure me either way and honestly supported me to make my own decisions. It was assumed they’d treat me badly simply because they are pastors.
How should I respond in these situations? I am not in a good place at the moment and don’t want to argue with people, but it hurts when people make assumptions about two people who have been offering me so much support and made me feel safe and unjudged when I was making a really difficult decision.
A: “I don’t want to argue about this, but I can tell you that they were nothing but supportive and compassionate when I needed support and compassion the most.” I hope none of your friends are going to get into an ongoing argument with you about whether you can accurately gauge when you’re being pressured. You need them to be emotionally present right now and to not scrutinize your ability to discern sincerity.
If anyone does push the conversation after you’ve made yourself clear, I think you should shut it down. “I can understand if you have complicated feelings about the clergy, but I need you to stop telling me the only people I turned to for support when I was pregnant and afraid didn’t actually support me. I know what happened. I was there, and I received support. Please don’t tell me I don’t know what they meant when they helped me. That’s a very unkind and painful thing to say.”
Q. Touchy-feely: I was excited to spend time with another queer poly woman this weekend, not in a romantic-sexual way, but as friends, with maybe a little fun safe flirting involved between her and my husband and me. “Anne” has told us before that her brash, loud, and aggressive nature has not always been welcome with women in our small town, but I didn’t think much of it, until my husband left us for a few minutes and Anne reached out and sort of smacked the top of one of my breasts. It was apropos of nothing, out of nowhere. I was confused and wasn’t sure how to feel—at first I thought maybe she’d seen a bug and swatted it away, but when I asked, she just laughed and said my boobs looked good and she wanted to squeeze them but thought that would be too forward—and I shrugged it off; I didn’t want to seem wishy-washy or like a wet blanket. But throughout the day, she kept touching my breasts, even when I asked her not to. I grew more and more uncomfortable, I changed clothes twice to cover up a little more each time in the hopes of sort of “removing the temptation,” but each time I asked her not to touch me, she argued, saying my reasons for not wanting to be touched were silly, until finally she swatted my ass and then I snapped at her to stop. My husband swiftly took her home after that.
She sent me some texts sort of half-apologizing, thanking me for establishing my boundaries, and saying that this is just the only way she knows how to interact with women. I’m not sure how to respond. I’m angry that Anne continually pushed past my boundaries even after I firmly established them, I’m angry that she has made the situation awkward for my husband, given that he and her husband are good friends, and I’m angry that I feel like I’ve lost a friend; then I worry that I’m blowing the whole thing out of proportion, until I remember that if it were a man smacking my breasts and my ass, no one would blame me for being angry about it. There’s also temptation to downplay the whole thing out of the fear of reinforcing negative predatory stereotypes in the queer female community. I have an appointment coming up with my therapist in two weeks, but I don’t know if I should wait that long to respond to Anne’s texts. Then part of me doesn’t want to respond at all. Do you have any advice for me?
A: I don’t think you should let your fears about predatory stereotypes guide your behavior to the extent that you force yourself to downplay the stress, frustration, and exhaustion of trying to manage someone you thought was a friend all afternoon as she repeatedly groped you, told you your reasons for objecting to being groped were ridiculous, and then later attempted to pass off her handsiness as an unavoidable, universal response to all women. Telling the truth about how she violated your boundaries and how that affected you isn’t reinforcing a stereotype—it’s just being honest. If you don’t want to talk to Anne, don’t; you’re under absolutely no obligation to explain to her what you’re feeling or why her behavior was inappropriate. (She knows why. That’s why she sent those texts half-apologizing for it and half-justifying it.) Take your time, let yourself be angry, talk about it with your therapist, and don’t rush to preserve your husband’s friendship at your own expense. If these two are really friends, they will be able to talk honestly and openly about how Anne needs to stop groping women; if this guy wants his friends to laugh off and excuse Anne’s behavior, then your husband is well out of an imbalanced friendship. You can wait as long as you need to before responding to Anne. You don’t ever have to actually respond to her at all if you’re not interested in talking to her again—that would be a totally understandable response.
Q. My emotionally distant brother got engaged and I found out through Facebook: My half-brother and I have a strained relationship. I’m not sure why. He is six years older than me, and we were very close when I was growing up until he got into his teens and suddenly cut contact with our abusive father. (I was too young to understand why at the time and felt very hurt by it—I lived with our dad and therefore lost contact with him as collateral damage.) He is now in his 30s and has since reconnected with our dad; meanwhile, I have cut contact with my father after deciding not to put up with his abuse anymore. Unfortunately, my brother does not seem to be interested in having any kind of relationship with me or my half-sister, to whom I am very close (and who is his “full” sister). Though we don’t live near each other anymore, I have tried my best to keep in touch in at least a casual way. I text him on holidays and his birthday, and I send him presents every Christmas. I sent him a “get well” card when he was recovering from surgery, and I have always commented encouraging things on his social media posts about his career and life accomplishments just to let him know that I love him and support him. He, on the other hand, hasn’t sent gifts for the holidays over the past several years, never reaches out first, and always forgets my birthday. I’m wouldn’t usually expect gifts, but after several years of just being ignored, it’s difficult not to feel a bit hurt. I have been trying to come to terms with the fact that my once-close brother doesn’t seem to care about me anymore, and I am grieving this loss in addition to grieving the father I never had. I can’t help but feel alienated, or like I’m being punished for something I didn’t do.
Today I opened Facebook to see that he got engaged to his girlfriend, whom I haven’t met. I am assuming that I will be invited to the wedding out of politeness, but I am not sure. Should I bother even attending if I am invited? I don’t want my lack of attendance to seem like some sort of personal slight or “statement,” but I feel like going will be incredibly uncomfortable for me. I’d have to pose for pictures with family members I actively avoid due to past abuse (e.g., my father and his wife), I’d have to pretend to be excited for him despite not even having a relationship with him or his fiancée, and so on. At the same time, it feels weird not to attend my own brother’s wedding. I feel completely torn.
A: I think you don’t need to worry just yet about an invitation that may never come, but I think you certainly have grounds to mourn your lost closeness and to consider whether you’d like to try being honest with your brother at some point. That doesn’t mean you should call him right now to congratulate him on his engagement and then immediately segue into why he forgets your birthday, but I think it might be worth trying to have a sincere, meaningful conversation about the state of your relationship that’s totally unconnected to his wedding, whenever that may be. Ask him (in a little while, once the original round of “congratulations on your engagement” is out of the way) if he’s available to talk to you about something that’s been on your mind and then tell him what you told me—that you’re not looking to keep tabs on who’s getting what for their birthday, but you often try to find ways to let him know you love him and are thinking of him, and you sometimes feel like if you didn’t initiate contact you’d never hear from him again, and you miss your old closeness. I imagine there’s at least a possibility that he could start to be honest with you and talk about what he’s feeling. Even if you didn’t get anywhere in that conversation, you might feel better about letting that relationship become more distant once you felt like you’d made a sincere attempt to reconnect and tell him you miss him. But don’t wait until you find out whether you’ve made the guest list to talk to your brother about missing him—you can do that on your own time.
Q. Re: The wedding gift problem: Weddings aren’t dates, or vacations. When you go on a date or vacation, you pick where and when you want to go, what budget you can afford, etc. For this wedding event, your girlfriend got to do none of that. So, yes, you should have paid—because you are the “host.” The bride and groom invited you, and you invited her, otherwise she wouldn’t have gone to the wedding of someone she sometimes sees at her partner’s work events. Cover the cost of this one with a smile. When you go to one of her friend’s weddings as her plus-one, she should pay for you. Still equitable.
A: I think that’s an excellent breakdown as to what makes this different from a trip the two of you might have planned together, and a pretty reasonable argument for having you cover both parts of the trip!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
From How to Do It
Q. I just tried anal sex—and loved almost everything about it: In the past, I never really had anal sex, not because I was against it but because it seemed like something that took a lot of prep that I didn’t understand, and I was happy without it. Lately, I’ve taken it up in a concentrated way—I tend to be a little bit of a project manager when I try something new, sexually or otherwise—and I really like it. It’s been a revelation in a lot of ways. But what I hate is the prep work. Douching is, generally, a struggle: often a long process that, by the time I’m done, makes me want to stick nothing up there at all. I’ve learned that towels are my friends, and most guys are very understanding about it, but I find myself wondering if anal sex is just frequently messy and I should accept that or if I could be doing something better. Tell me the secrets.
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