Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Mother seeking father-in-law: I come from a very dysfunctional family. I believe my mother is either histrionic, borderline, or a bit of both. Six years ago my father died at the same time that my husband’s aunt died. My mother and my uncle-in-law bonded over their grief for their respective spouses. They agreed to a date, but it didn’t work out as my mother canceled the same day as their date. I made it clear that I didn’t want to get involved. I would say it ended there, but it didn’t. My mother pursued him for another two years before I had to make it clear that he didn’t want to date her. Since then, she only went on one other date, and that didn’t work out for her. In the past six months, she has begun asking about my father-in-law, who has been living in my two-family home for the last six years. She has made remarks such as “Has he been asking about me?” and “Will he be at such and such event?” I asked if she was interested in a romantic relationship with him, and she denied it. Then, last week, I was on the phone with her when she stated she plans to travel with him to Europe for several months (they are both retirement-age), and he would be able to move into her apartment on their return. My mouth fell open in shock, and I asked if she was planning on having a sexual relationship with him. She answered yes. I asked if she stopped to think how I would feel about this, and she said no. I asked if she stopped to think how my husband would feel and react to this, and she said no. I was mortified that she was having these thoughts without thinking and talking to me and my husband. I told her that we both wouldn’t approve of this, and she asked me to not tell my husband. (My husband was sitting next to me and overheard the whole conversation.) I told her I wouldn’t say a word to him, and she quickly got off the phone.
I am at a loss over this. I know that my father-in-law has no interest in dating my mother or traveling anywhere with her. He has never asked about her. He told us that he plans to continue working as he doesn’t want to retire yet. I called one of my siblings to discuss this, and they said the following statements to me: “It is a little weird, but I’m OK with it,” “You are overreacting about this,” “That is why I never introduced her to my friend’s parents.” To hear my siblings say these things made me feel confused, dismissed, and invalidated. For me, there are so many boundaries that are being crossed, and it seems like my mother wants to be so enmeshed in my life. It’s unhealthy on so many levels. The only men she seems interested in are my husband’s relatives. I understand she is lonely, but she refuses to go on dating apps online, hire a matchmaker, or take any form of responsibility for finding a companion. She tends to project this responsibility onto me and not my two other siblings. More than once, I have asked her to seek advice from my two other siblings, and she minimizes it by saying, “Oh, I can’t ask them. They are too busy.” I have a full-time job just like my other siblings. I am married with three dogs, involved in other side projects, and looking to start IVF. At this point, I don’t know what to do with her. I have limited my contact with her over the years, but I am thinking of taking a break for several months from her. Any thoughts?
A: I think a break is an excellent idea—and long overdue! If your version of “limited contact” with your mother involves numerous long and involved conversations about her sexual plans for your in-laws, I think it’s time for you to firm up just what “limited” means to you. You seem stuck in the idea that you can talk your mother into behaving reasonably, when she’s demonstrated absolutely zero interest in listening to feedback, filtering her speech, or respecting other people’s boundaries. I read some of your sibling’s statements not as attempts to invalidate you (although, of course, I wasn’t on that phone call and might be misreading their tone) but attempts to get you to stop wasting your time and energy. “You are making a big deal over it” is code for “Why are you giving Mom so much attention when she’s clearly trying to get a rise out of you?”
You do not need your mother’s permission to stop talking to her. Instead of this:
YOUR MOTHER: Is your father-in-law going to be at Lindsey’s baby shower next week?
YOU: Mom, this makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t want to discuss my father-in-law with you. Can’t you talk to [Sibling] about this?
YOUR MOTHER: No. They’re too busy.
YOU: Dang. Well, let’s go another round on whether it’s a good idea for you to buy tickets for a trip to Europe with my father-in-law before you’ve even asked him. I think it’s a bad idea, but I’m willing to hear your side of the story again.
You need to be doing this:
YOUR MOTHER: Is your father-in-law—
YOU: I’m not going to discuss him with you. I’m hanging up now.
I don’t say this because I think you should beat yourself up for not being able to draw a harder boundary than this already. It’s clear that you want more than anything to be able to have a reasonable conversation with your mother, and that you’re often hurt and embarrassed by her selfish, thoughtless behavior. But you are doing so much more work than you need to. You’re trying to reason with a woman you know cannot, and will not, be reasoned with. This break is not likely to be just a few months, since this sounds like a long-standing habit, but I really do think it will be better for you (and your marriage) if you make not discussing your mother’s dating life a prerequisite for having a conversation. My guess is that your mother will not be able to clear that bar. As soon as you stop trying to clear it for her, you’ll find yourself with a lot more (stress-free!) time on your hands. Good luck. It’s hard, but it’ll be so worth it.
Q. Abusive ex falling apart: A few years ago I broke up with a man I’d been dating for a significant portion of my 20s. Our relationship was extremely volatile. He was an alcoholic and probably had undiagnosed mental illness. He was physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive. It was a horrible period of my life, and getting out was the single best thing I’ve ever done. Since our breakup, I feel like I’ve been living in some sort of revenge fantasy. I got fit. I landed a six-figure salary. I met an incredible and impressive partner who is everything my ex wasn’t, and we recently bought a house together. Things for my ex, on the other hand, have only gotten worse. I know this because he shares all of it on his public Instagram account. First it was an addiction to pain meds (that included frequent hospitalizations). Then his car was stolen. He was kicked out of his apartment. His whole band quit. And most recently he was sent to jail for domestic violence and has been labeled a pariah in his social circle.
Based on my history, it should be easy for me to just say he’s finally got what he deserves, but his recent posts seem completely deranged. His eyes look vacant, and his appearance is disheveled. He’s not making any sense. I think he’s in the middle of some sort of psychotic break, and he seems so alone. It’s disturbing to watch, and there’s a part of me that wants to encourage him to seek help, but I realize that’s a stupid idea. I absolutely do not want a friendship with him. I guess maybe I just don’t want him to end up dead. Is there anything I can or should do?
A: The best thing you can possibly do for either your ex or yourself is to unfollow his Instagram account. Having a regular window into the ways in which his life is falling apart is not helpful to your emotional well-being or your physical safety. I can understand your distress at seeing him so cornered, self-destructive, dangerous and unhappy; it’s painful to watch someone suffer, especially when they use that suffering as an excuse to lash out and hurt others. The best possible thing for your ex would be if he chose to stop abusing his partners, sought treatment for his addiction and mental health issues, meaningfully wrestled with the harm he’s done in the past, and strove to be useful to others and find peace on a daily basis. I would also encourage you to distinguish between becoming a “pariah,” which implies undue harshness, and experiencing the very natural consequences of violence and abusive behavior; if he’s attacked his partner or lashed out at his roommates, it makes sense that people in his life would take a step back from him. That’s not inherently an act of punishment, but one of self-preservation.
I think some of the consequences he’s experiencing (like, say, members of his band quitting) are less significant than others (going to jail for physically abusing his partner, appearing to have broken with reality), but I want to stress here that your reflexive sense of pity makes sense to me. You wanted him to stop abusing people, not necessarily to die miserable and in the throes of addiction.
That said, you must not allow that pity to be the only feeling driving your behavior. When you feel tempted to reach out to him, say this to yourself: “As his ex, and a former victim of his abusive behavior, I am uniquely unqualified to assist this man in getting help. Help is available to him, if he ever chooses to seek it out. There are treatments for addiction, there are therapists, there are support groups. But that help cannot come from me.” I’d encourage you to see a therapist to help you deal with whatever guilt may arise from having such a lovely life yourself while your ex is suffering and causing suffering to others. You deserve a chance to explore and identify where you may feel compassion, misplaced responsibility, a sense of unworthiness about the joy you very much deserve to experience, survivor’s guilt, a desire to fix, etc.
If nothing else, try to remind yourself of this: During all of this, it’s very likely that your ex has heard some variation on “You need to seek help” from his former bandmates before they quit, his former roommates before they told him to leave, the partner he abused, the police officers who arrested him for abusing her, the doctors and nurses who have treated him for his addictions, or the friends who eventually had to stop taking his calls. I do not think hearing it again from you would make an impression on him that sticks, but I do think getting back in touch with him, even briefly, would be dangerous and harmful for you. Tell some of the people who care about you and whose judgment you trust that you’re having a hard time unfollowing his account and keeping yourself from getting back in touch with him, and ask them to help keep you accountable as you struggle to keep yourself safe and at a distance. You can hope mightily that someday he does choose to seek help, but you cannot sacrifice your own peace and safety in order to encourage him to seek help he does not yet want.
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Q. Avoiding a chatty runner: I used to run frequently for my morning workout. I enjoyed the relative solitude and getting my heart pumping first thing. I would often see the same runners and at best wave to those I had passed enough times over the years. Months back, one of these regular faces started altering his route and joining up with me if he saw me. He’s an avid runner and seemingly knows every a.m. runner in our neighborhood. The first time this happened I thought he’d give a wave and continue on his way—he is much faster than me—but instead he made conversation the whole time despite the fact that I had headphones on. Then it happened with greater regularity as I keep the same route. I tried to learn more about his routine in the hopes of figuring out when I could avoid him, but he changes his route a lot and he doesn’t have a set off day. To be clear, he is kind, friendly, and polite during these conversations. He is happily married, and there are no romantic drivers in his behavior. He is just an extroverted runner who considers it more of a group activity than I do. He says hi to everyone and knows most a.m. runners in the area by name—both men and women. While I’ve never flat-out stated that I do not want to talk to him, I did drop hints. Once he pointed out another woman in our route and said, “She likes running alone.” To which I replied, “So do I.” But nothing came of it. Eventually the stress about worrying if I’d have to chat during my whole run got to me, and I’ve all but stopped. I want to get back out there but dread the above scenario repeating itself. How can I politely say I have no interest in chatting—I just want to prepare for the day ahead, listen to my music, and run without interruption?
A: Since you say he’s kind and polite during these interactions, I think you have reason to believe directness will work here. It sounds like he was able to get the picture with that other solitary runner and doesn’t try to keep pace with her, which is another good sign that he’s just not picking up on your hints but will be prepared to cheerfully clear off once you tell him, “It’s great to see you, but running is one of my only chances to enjoy a little alone time and clear my head. I’m not looking for a running partner, so I’ll let you go on ahead and keep going on my own route. Have a good run!”
That said, it’s also possible that he’s just good at seeming chipper and in fact does change his route in order to buttonhole as many women as possible. If you’re at all worried about pushback or retaliation, I’d encourage you to tell your friends when you’re heading out on runs and tell them you’ll check in with them again when you’re done, asking for support if you worry he’s going to start “accidentally” following you. I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, given what you’ve described, but it makes sense to prepare, just in case.
Q. Trumpster parents: I’m a gay man about to propose to my boyfriend. I’ve met his family many times, and they’ve welcomed me into their home and family gatherings without any hint of discomfort, even though they are evangelical Christians. I’m the third (future) spouse to join the family, and my future father-in-law has told me he gets along with me best. He has been genuinely warm to me, even going so far as to let me play his extremely expensive and rare guitar with him during jam sessions. Recently, my boyfriend was visiting his family without me, and they got into a discussion of politics and religious beliefs. His father said many things not out of line with what one would expect from an evangelical and tried to explain why they think our current president is the best human alive. All that’s fine, as they can believe whatever they want, as long as they treat us with dignity and respect, which to this point they have. The issue comes from the fact that, when asked point-blank if he would support policies and laws that limit the rights of queer people, his father said yes. When pressed further to see if he would support policies even if they would limit the rights of both his son and myself specifically, he also said yes. My boyfriend lost his cool and left the house and hasn’t spoken with his parents since. I know he’s devastated in a way I can’t comprehend, and I’m angry as well. I’m not sure how to reconcile the positive experiences I’ve had with this newfound knowledge of how they really feel. I don’t want to see them right now, and I sure as heck don’t want to invite them to the wedding knowing they would support policies to prevent it. I haven’t gotten my boyfriend’s thoughts on the latter because he doesn’t yet know a wedding is on the way. I’m at a loss on how to proceed here. I know there’s no changing their minds on any of their beliefs.
A: I think it’s very possible to reconcile the information you’ve just received with the experiences you’ve had. Your boyfriend’s parents prioritize in-person politeness over the consistent expression of their values, and getting to know you better hasn’t changed their ideas about what rights gay people deserve. It’s that simple.
I’m also a little worried at the way you phrased this: “My boyfriend doesn’t yet know a wedding is on the way.” I’m not a big fan of surprise proposals, and while I’m not saying you and your boyfriend shouldn’t get engaged, I do think you have a lot to discuss. Talk to your boyfriend about how he’s felt during this temporary estrangement. Is part of him relieved to know where his parents stand, even though it’s painful, so he can stop trying to convince them he deserves to be treated like a full human being in the eyes of the state? Is part of him hoping to try again in the future? Can you imagine yourself spending time with them and being friendly, all the while knowing that if they ever get the chance, they’ll cheerfully support policies that put you at risk? The two of you should definitely be talking about this sort of thing before you spring a proposal on him.
Q. Apologizing to an ex-friend: I moved in with three friends two years ago, and one year ago Friend No. 3 was essentially ousted from the social group. The more I think about the situation, so much of it was incompatible personalities trying and failing to mesh, then complaining in circles without communicating to find a solution. I participated in the petty whispering and sided with Friends No. 1 and No. 2 on nearly every issue. Now Friend No. 3 has moved out, and I am riddled with guilt over how I—and we—treated them. We didn’t speak to them, even though we were still living in the same house. I’ve never really had to break up with a friend, and I know I botched it tremendously. I imagine they viewed moving out as an escape from a deeply uncomfortable situation. I keep running it over in my head, how I could have handled the situation differently, how I could have been more fair or more compassionate or more communicative. It’s been on my mind since fall, and it’s starting to keep me up at night. It kills me to think that I helped foster such a painful environment. Even though I’m not interested in being friends again, I want to apologize to them. But how would I even go about that? Would it just ring hollow if I still want to be friends with the other two? Would it help if they knew I was sorry? Or do I need to let them live their new life, sit with my mistakes and my guilt, and resolve to do better?
A: This is complicated, and I agree that it’s important to consider whether the apology would ring hollow, especially if you continued to live and be friendly with the other members of the household who ousted her. I think your first move should be to speak to your current roommates, saying that you feel guilty about how you behaved, that you think it was wrong to complain so often about your former roommate without speaking to her directly, and that you don’t want to handle conflict like that in the future. It might also help to spend a little time thinking about ways in which you try to avoid conflict in general. What are some of your fears about having a direct conversation? What are you afraid might happen, and what are you afraid of losing (composure, control)? Whenever it’s possible, as you reflect on that year of living together, be specific: What could you have done differently, what do you most regret, how do you believe this avoidance and in-group dynamic hurt your former friend both emotionally and materially? Did she suffer financially as a result of having to move out?
I’d continue to give your former friend a little more time before you reach out to offer an apology. If and when you do, I’d frame it this way: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m so sorry for the way I treated you when we lived together. It was wrong, and I don’t want to treat anyone that way again. If you are available for this conversation, I would like to apologize for hurting you, and I’d be open to hearing anything you might want to say to me. But I also understand if you don’t want to speak to me, and I won’t try to contact you again.”
Q. Plus-zero? My fiancée and I recently got engaged, and we’re just starting to dip our toes into the early stages of wedding planning. It’s going as well as can be expected, but one aspect of it scares me. My parents got divorced a few years ago after my father admitted he had had an affair with my mom’s friend “Sandy.” He is still seeing Sandy, though, and while they’re not married or engaged they appear (if Facebook is a good indicator) to be serious. I see him every couple of months, but I have not seen or spoken to Sandy since the admission of infidelity. I quickly decided that there would be no way to invite Sandy to my wedding without making my mom cry and without it being the talk of the wedding. Plus, I’m not ready to see her or acknowledge that her relationship with my dad might be the real deal. I do not believe my father will be offended if I do not offer him a plus-one to my wedding (I already told my mother she would not be receiving one), but nevertheless I am terrified he will. How can I frame this delicate conversation in a way that will make him understand how awful Sandy’s presence would be to everyone but him?
A: There is a longer conversation to be had about what your expectations are for your relationship with your dad further down the line, I think, but for the purposes of this wedding, and given that your dad has never tried to get you and Sandy to spend time together before this, I think it’s fine to tell your dad that you’re trying to keep the guest list intimate and that he doesn’t have a plus-one. I don’t think there’s much use in framing it as delicately as possible, although you can of course be kind and matter-of-fact. If he objects, you can explain your reasoning and hold your ground. I don’t think you need to try to convince him that Sandy is terrible for “everyone but him”; merely maintain your own boundaries around whom you want at your wedding.
Q. I keep getting ghosted: Over the last three or four years, I have lost almost all of my friends. I treasure the few that remain. I was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and with that comes trademark difficulties with relationships. I try my best to be a good listener and reliable in my friendships, and believe I am a loyal person, but my friendships keep ending with painful silence and ghosting. My question is, is this an issue I can ask my remaining friends about, as in “Please give me tips on how to be less toxic?” I don’t want to antagonize and lose them as well. I have also made the sad choice to not date, maybe for keeps. My therapist is trying to help, but obviously can’t observe me outside her office.
A: You can speak to your friends about this, although I don’t think you need to frame it as asking for tips, and I definitely don’t encourage you to use the word toxic to describe yourself, not least because that word obscures the importance of choice and behavior in favor of assigning a categorical value. It might help to spend a little time with your therapist first trying to identify some of the behaviors you know have alienated other friends in the past—do you have a sense of what patterns have hurt or frustrated other people? After you’ve done that, you might say to your close friends something like, “I really value our friendship, and I want you to know how much I appreciate you. Sometimes I have trouble [fill in the blank with some specific behavior], and I’m working on that with my therapist. I just want you to know that while I’m doing my best to address it, I’m also open to hearing from you if I ever do or say something that’s frustrating or difficult for you. You don’t have to, of course, but if I’m doing or saying something that bothers you, please feel free to tell me about it, and I’ll do my best to listen and change what I’m doing.”
Q. Re: Apologizing to an ex-friend: As someone who has been later contacted by an ex-friend who ended things in a bad way … I advise you to tread delicately. The apology didn’t resolve any of the despair the breakup caused me. Instead, I felt like all it did was clear their conscience. So just be sure that your apology is genuinely framed as regret for your own behavior, without putting the burden back on her to forgive you. Because ultimately, her life was affected—she had to move—due to your behavior. You can’t change that it happened.
A: I think that’s really important to bear in mind before making any overtures. An apology cannot undo what happened, and it may in fact add to her pain, so tread cautiously, take your time, investigate your motives, and consider what are some other ways you can make a sort of “living amends” in terms of how you treat your friends and roommates in the future. The letter writer can expect the most relief from changing those habits, and the apology, if they ever offer it, should not be about asking for forgiveness, merely about saying, “What I did was wrong, and it hurt you, and I’m sorry for that.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. I can’t bond with my baby: I have three kids ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years. The older two were unplanned, but they were very much wanted. I stayed home with them until they were 1 and 4, and then returned to college. Then once again I got unexpectedly pregnant, this time despite using an IUD. I didn’t want any more kids and was angry. Even though my husband had agreed that he was done having kids, once I found out I was pregnant he was ecstatic to have a third. I spent my whole pregnancy angry and resentful, but I kept thinking the happy, lovey feelings would come later.
Well, the baby is now 6 months old and I still don’t feel a connection with her. Of course I love her and want her to be happy and healthy, but I have no desire to care for her or really even hold her. She’s my first child whom I didn’t breastfeed (due to complications after birth) and I am so glad that I am not tied down to her in that way. I do all the practical things I need to do to take care of her, but my husband does almost all the holding, feeding, and playing. He’s completely happy to do it and our daughter certainly isn’t lacking in love or affection, but I feel terrible that I have hardly any bond with her. Is there something wrong with me? Am I emotionally stunting my sweet daughter by not bonding with her? Should I just “fake it till I make it” or is there something I can do to help me bond?
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