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 chat!
Q. Boyfriend’s sisters: My boyfriend is the white sheep of his family: the only one to go to college and have an actual job. His mother is nice enough, but I have never seen his father sober. His sisters are so trashy they belong on the side of the highway. I’ve never seen them in anything that wasn’t low-cut or so short you could see their underwear. I caught one of them shoplifting while we were out grocery shopping, and she hissed at me when I told her to stop. She later started dry-humping her boyfriend in the living room after dinner. (We all were in the kitchen.) The other one hit me up for my pain pills (I was recovering from surgery) within 15 minutes of meeting. Our luggage got ripped apart. I kept my pills in our rental car. Neither of them has custody of their kids. My boyfriend is reluctant to see his family other than his mom, but he feels responsible for his sisters. I could deal with the drunk dad. (He tells bad jokes and doesn’t have a car.) His sisters give me hives. They are only 21 and 24. My boyfriend has confessed he has bailed them out of jail twice this year. We were getting pretty serious, but I am having second thoughts. I can’t imagine a future dealing with these women, but I genuinely love my boyfriend. What do I do?
A: It will help, I think, to distinguish between behavior that actually harms or distresses you (hitting you up for pills, going through your luggage) from behavior that may be sad but doesn’t directly affect you (losing custody of children) and behavior you merely disapprove of (wearing short skirts, making out with a boyfriend in the other room). It will also help to not spend a lot of time mentally justifying where you think they belong; they may very well be frustrating people who make bad choices, but they’re also relatively young women who may be struggling with addiction, and consigning them to the category of “highway people” isn’t going to help you set effective boundaries, but only strengthen a sense of contempt that’s not going to serve you well in the long run.
If you can’t imagine committing to someone whose sisters may end up in and out of jail, then yes, the kindest thing you could do is be honest with your boyfriend and end things before you get more involved with him. But I think before you make that decision, it’s worth talking to him first about possible compromise. Could you see yourself in an arrangement where you don’t try to manage his relationship with his sisters but do agree that you minimize your visits, or agree to leave if they try to ask you for medication or violate your boundaries? Is he committed to continuing to bail them out, or is he frustrated by this dynamic too? Wherever possible, stick to talking about what they’ve done rather than what kind of people you think they are. You certainly have grounds to say, “I’m not comfortable spending a lot of time around your sisters since they’ve gone through my things looking for drugs and shoplifted when we were buying groceries together,” but saying, “I think your sisters are trash” can only put him on the defensive.
Q. Glass: I am a 22-year-old bisexual girl in my first serious relationship. “Rae” is older than me. We had a fight over her jealousy after I texted an ex-boyfriend. (The ex and I are still friends, we’d barely dated, and I showed Rae the texts.) It got heated, and Rae grabbed a glass and threw it on the kitchen floor, where it shattered. I was barefoot and some of the glass cut me. It freaked both of us out. Rae started to cry and spent the rest of the night apologizing to me. I am spooked. Rae didn’t throw the glass at me, but the violence of the act freaks me out. My parents don’t even raise their voices to each other. If a guy acted like this, I would be out the door in a flash, but Rae seemed more upset than me that night. She told me that it will never happen again, that she doesn’t know why she did it, and that she loves me so much and is terrified to lose me. Am I stupid to stay? Should I leave? I love Rae, but this is like nothing I’ve ever had to deal with.
A: I don’t want you, on top of having been terrified and hurt by Rae’s violence, to start calling yourself “stupid” for loving her or feeling unsure about what to do next. Part of the pattern of abuse involves showering one’s partner after a violent outburst with love and remorse—she was able to distract you from your own response to her violence by becoming more upset than you, so you found yourself paradoxically calming her down afterward. The fact that she wants to pretend she doesn’t know why she threw glass on the floor next to your bare feet (to frighten, hurt, and control you) is worrying, as is the justification that she did it because she loves you “so much” and doesn’t want to lose you. “I love you so much that I had to become violent or risk losing you” is nothing more than an attempt to normalize and justify abusive behavior. That’s a huge red flag, and I do think it’s important for your safety and your well-being that you leave now. Your instinct right now to “be out the door in a flash” is the right one; don’t try to convince yourself that just because Rae’s a woman your instincts are suddenly misplaced. Please tell other people in your life who care about you what’s going on so that you can get the help you need to get out of this relationship; it’s possible that Rae may behave violently again when you end things. You do not owe anyone who has become violent toward you an in-person conversational breakup. Tell your friends and family what’s going on, get someone to help you collect your things, prioritize your own safety, and trust your instincts.
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Q. Neighbor can hear everything: I live in an apartment building in a major American city. I recently have been aggressively contacted by my downstairs neighbor about how the noise I make is disrupting her sleep. At first I was told that it sounded like every night I was moving furniture around my bedroom (I’m not), and now she says that the noise from me walking across the room and getting into bed, or my cats walking around, or me even putting a glass of water down on a table fills her whole apartment with unbearable noise. I bought more area rugs and I am trying to keep it down, but I am baffled. I have lived in this apartment for many years with no such complaints from previous neighbors. It’s not a very quiet building and neighbor noise is just something you have to deal with. I politely will ask a loud neighbor to be more quiet when he’s being particularly disruptive (loud music late at night, etc.), but I don’t know how to help someone who is woken up by the sound of me putting down my glass of water. She requests no noise after 9 p.m. and that I not have sex in my room at night.
I’ve been polite so far, but I’m about ready to leave pamphlets for farmhouses in the country for sale outside her door and to block her phone number. She claims earplugs and headphones don’t help. What responsibility do I have? Every time I’m in my apartment now I just worry. Everyone I talk to says I should ignore her and tell her to get over it, but I pride myself on being a good neighbor. Any advice is welcome.
A: I think you’ve done at this point everything you reasonably can to accommodate her, and if she approaches you again, rather than hand her a pamphlet on anchoritic living, you can gently nudge her in a different direction: “I’m really sorry you’re still having trouble. I’m doing everything I can within reason to limit the noise, but I do need to be able to live in my apartment. I’m afraid there’s nothing else I can do,” then hang up and screen any subsequent calls. You might also want to mention this to your landlord just in case she starts taking her complaints to him—not to rat on her before she can rat on you, just to make sure your landlord is aware that you’re not throwing wild parties at 3 a.m. (and that she should maybe look into adding extra insulation between floors).
Q. Re: Boyfriend’s sisters: I am the white sheep of my family. What you need to know before you go further is how much of a relationship your boyfriend wants to have with these people. Once you advance out of dysfunction, it’s really hard to maintain a relationship with those who are still there. My husband has always respected both my need to connect with my family and my need to draw strong boundaries around them. Talk to your boyfriend about what he sees as his future and your future with them, and think about whether his vision is realistic. If he sees you as a big happy family, then you know your answer.
A: I think that’s really important!
Someone else referred to the letter writer’s boyfriend as being “willing to subsidize [his sisters’] destructive lifestyle,” but I’m not yet convinced that’s the case—there are a lot of reasons someone might want to bail a family member out of jail, including the fact that jail is not a particularly helpful or supportive environment for someone to get better. Of course, if the two of them stay together and plan on someday sharing their bills and expenses and income, it would be relevant for the letter writer to talk about financial limits they can agree upon when it comes to his sisters. I’m not suggesting that the only way for the two of them to relate to his family is to agree to always post bail forever, but I don’t think it’s by itself a sign that he’s unwilling to draw boundaries in the future.
If his line is “My sisters are my family and I don’t want to hear a word about it and I’ll never stand up for you if they try to steal from you,” then that’s relevant and might be a determining factor in whether you break up. But if he says, “This has been really hard, and I don’t always know the best way to be both loving and firm with them, but I want to start trying to do something different,” then I think there’s a real chance for the two of them.
Q. Mom is in denial: I’m a 25-year-old professional woman, and I just moved into a rental house with my boyfriend of over two years. Because of various comments about “his bedroom,” it seems that my conservative and evangelical mom wants to believe that we’re not sharing a bedroom. But we are! In the past, she has also mentioned that she “doesn’t want to know” what I know about sex and whether I’ve ever had sex. Come on! Do I need to set the record straight, or should I just keep dealing with her infantilizing denial?
A: I don’t think it’s a denial you should worry about helping her prop up, so if you two are having a conversation about, say, interior design and she starts talking about “your room” and “his room,” you should clarify, “We sleep in the same room, actually.” But if she’d generally prefer not to discuss your sex life, or sort of pretend that she doesn’t know what she knows, I think that’s a relatively reasonable boundary for a mother to draw, and it’s not really worth pushing. It does sound like she’s at least somewhat aware of her own need for plausible deniability. As long as she’s not inviting you on vacation together and trying to book you separate hotel rooms, I think it’s fine.
Q. Baby woes: My wife and I recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy five months ago. I couldn’t be happier. But it seemed like our sex life had been put on hold throughout the pregnancy, and now that he’s here, it’s almost worse. I know everyone complains about this—well, it seems like men do—but what is “enough”? I have a very strong libido and find her unbelievably sexy, even when she doesn’t. I’ve thought about taking medication so I could get more on her level with the sex-drive thing. She is breastfeeding, which I know decreases drive, but it’s just hard not to feel selfish when my needs aren’t being met. We’ve talked about this a lot. And I am pretty persistent but I also respect her decision or lack of desire. But I’m drowning here and slowly looking at other outlets. And she wants another kid! I keep saying not until our relationship is back to normal, but that doesn’t seem acceptable. What can I do to get that spark back in my wife? Is it me who’s being too horny, or my wife who isn’t being horny enough? Should I seek treatment or should she? I don’t like being selfish, but I feel like I have to be with this.
A: I think there are a few healthy tensions to explore here. On the one hand, having a vibrant, active sex life with your partner is good and important; it’s not inherently selfish or shallow to want to prioritize that. On the other hand, sex going on the back burner during pregnancy and the first five months after a baby’s arrival is pretty normal—to be expected, really—and is not necessarily a crisis. Your wife has gone through a pretty physically taxing experience, so it’s not just a question of “breastfeeding turned off her sex drive” but of the number of really overwhelming physical challenges she’s had to face growing a person from scratch inside of her own body and then giving birth. I don’t think either trying to score libido-killing medication for yourself or asking her to “seek treatment” to raise her sex drive is going to be the way forward here. I think talking a lot about your shared (and unshared!) expectations, fears, and desires is. It also might be a great opportunity to ask your wife if she feels like you’re sharing in the project of caring for a newborn as well as you can be. Sometimes our own perception of how much we’re doing to support our partner doesn’t always match the partner’s perception, and if she feels like she’s on the hook for the vast majority of anticipating and meeting the baby’s needs, with your help coming only around the edges or after being asked, that might have something to do with the gulf between you. That doesn’t mean you should treat caring for your own baby as “sex-earning chores,” but merely that there’s an opportunity for curiosity and openness here. Good luck! And give it time.
Q. I thought middle school was over: I’m struggling dealing with a friend who handles conflict like an adolescent. But she’s in her 30s. Most recently she heard something I said out of context, and it did sound thoughtless, but when I realized it (within a minute or two), I apologized, many times. I acknowledged that it did sound awful and explained the full context. My many apologies were met with a scathing text as well as social media comments from her family member. I know I hurt her, I feel awful and told her so, and I apologized multiple times, just short of the line where I felt it would seem more like ass kissing than a genuine apology. I considered taking a small gift to her home to apologize face to face, but she’s made it clear she doesn’t want to hear my apology. We have been good, supportive friends to each other. But this is exhausting. What to do?
A: Without knowing what you said, I can’t make any sort of judgment about whether it was simply incidentally thoughtless-sounding or genuinely hurtful. Either way, if you’ve apologized and your friend says she wants space, you need to give it to her. An apology is not a forgive-me-now button, and it doesn’t mean you get to tell someone else when they’re allowed to stop being hurt or angry with you. If in a few weeks or months you want to send a (brief) message reiterating how sorry you are and that you’d love to hear from her if she ever wants to talk, you might do that, since you two have a long history of friendship between you, but other than that, you need to leave her alone.
Q. How to date: I am a young woman in my early 20s, and I have never dated. I would like to start dating, but I don’t know how to begin. I have literally never been on a date, so I have absolutely zero experience. There are several reasons why this is. I am on the spectrum, so sending out and receiving subtle hints is often difficult. Until I was 15, I went to an all-girls school and had little interaction with boys. Once I transferred to a coed school for learning differences, most kids struggled socially, like me. As a result, this led to me not getting any of the typical dating experiences at this crucial stage in life. Is it ever too late to start? I feel like I passed that point years ago. If I do start dating, how do I address my lack of romantic experience? It’s sure to come up at some point. After all, it seems I am the only twentysomething without an awkward-first-kiss or first-date story. My awkward story is that it never happened. In addition, I am probably asexual, but I am interested in at least experiencing the romantic aspects of a relationship, even if I realize it isn’t for me. What can I do? Please help.
A: I hear every day from people in their 20s and 30s in the exact same position as you: worried that not having had a high school or college sweetheart somehow disqualifies them from grown-up dating now. I don’t think there’s anything uniquely crucial about adolescent dating that could prevent someone from dating as an adult—frankly, dating in high school doesn’t really resemble dating in the rest of one’s life. You don’t have to confine yourself to seeking out other “late bloomers” if you don’t want to, because I don’t want you to think you “have” to restrict yourself to any particular kind of person, but I think it might feel like a relief to get dinner or drinks with guys who share your experience and are trying dating out for the first time. There are a lot of people out there who do share it! I assume you’re at least considering using dating apps, some of which are beginning to include asexuality as part of the drop-down menu of what you’re looking for and how you describe yourself. I’d encourage you to prioritize the ones that do, in addition to explicitly asexual-specific sites and apps. That’s not to say that you need to describe yourself as asexual when you’re still figuring that out, but seeking out environments where that sort of identifying term is explicitly welcome is going to go a long way toward putting you at ease, I think.
Without disparaging the idea of romantic experience entirely, I think it’s important to remember that everyone who dates has to start somewhere, and every first date is going to be different from the first date before. Everyone who goes on a first date with you, however much they may have dated in the past, is doing something for the very first time and shares at least in part an experience of uncertainty and trepidation.
Q. Re: Glass: This scene could’ve been lifted verbatim from my incredibly scary, abusive, damaging relationship with my first girlfriend. I’m bi and had only really dated guys up ‘til then, and I was just so thrilled to be finally dating a girl that I rationalized away red flag after red flag. I considered myself a very empowered feminist and would never in a million years have put up with the stuff she did to me if it had been coming from a guy. Please don’t make the same mistake I did. Get out now. It’s been 11 years since I ended that relationship with her after she cornered and assaulted me in a stockroom at work (over her jealousy at my continuing friendship with an ex), and it’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve been able to start sleeping well at night. Same-sex abusive relationships can slip under your radar and become all the more damaging because of it. Please protect yourself. You deserve better.
A: Thank you so much for sharing this with us—I hope the letter writer is able to see this and feel less alone. Experiencing abuse in a queer context can feel so isolating and bewildering, and I’m so glad that you’re safe and taking care of yourself. The fact that Rae is a woman and your ex is a man doesn’t make any of her behavior less abusive. Letter writer, please write back and let us know how you’re doing if you’re able. I hope you have a lot of people in your corner helping you leave.
Q. Re: Mom is in denial: Try this: “Mother, for the good of the family, my paramour and I are energetically attempting to conceive an heir. In fact, we energetically attempt such every morning, between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and in the evenings just after dinner. Our favorite conception attempt involved a feather duster, three rolls of duct tape, the U.S. Constitution, and a tuba.”
A: Keep that one in your back pocket for if you’re ever feeling really bored and want to have a brand-new kind of fight with your mother!
Q. Mutiny of the bridesmaids: My fiancé and I are paying for our wedding in its entirety. I had the (apparently ridiculous) notion that this would allow us control over things, but I’m already running into trouble. I recently treated my attendants to lunch followed by a trip to the bridal shop. They were excited about seeing my gown and looking at some for them. They were shocked (appalled might be a better word) to see that my gown has sleeves. They were even more appalled (horrified) when I told them theirs would also have sleeves. The fact is, I hate today’s wedding styles. It’s just too much skin. The fighting continued as we looked at bridesmaid gowns. I picked one with sleeves; they wanted one with spaghetti straps. I finally offered what I thought was a reasonable compromise: I’ll buy the dress they want and have made, at my expense, short bolero jackets which will cover their shoulders and upper arms but not detract from the dress. I would like them to wear the jackets for their walk down the aisle and all the formal pictures. Once the reception starts, they can take them off and throw them in the trash as far as I’m concerned. They are still complaining, and I’m ready to fire them all and elope. I told them it was either the gown with sleeves or the jackets, and they are all angry with me and making snide comments about “Bridezilla.” Have I mentioned I’m paying for everything? Am I out of line, or should they be willing to compromise?
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