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. Tacky: I threw an expensive sit-down dinner for friends and family to celebrate getting my Ph.D. One of my friends brought her adult son and his girlfriend. Right before I was going to get up to make my toast, he rang his glass with a fork and made an announcement about how much he loved the woman next to him. Then he got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend. I felt like I had been sucker-punched. All eyes were on this couple, and I was footing the bill for their impromptu engagement party. Someone yelled for champagne to celebrate. I ended up leaving halfway through because I was so upset. Several friends followed me and got upset on my behalf. They wanted to throw the “brats” out. I told them I didn’t want to make a scene.
I later emailed my friend about her son’s behavior. I told her it was “tacky, tasteless, and utterly contemptible” for her son to do what he did, and had she acted like a good friend, she should have shut it down. She blasted back that I was coldhearted and should not be “jealous of their good fortune.” I said I hadn’t intended to spend several thousand dollars of my own money on her son’s engagement party. If she wanted to pay me back, I would be happy to drop the subject. She never responded. There are very few events for adults to seriously celebrate outside the life-script events (e.g., weddings and pregnancies). This was a huge achievement for me, and I feel cheated out of my celebration. I am not sure how to get over this. I know it is petty, but it was my party for crying out loud! And they sent me a save-the-date card. What do I do here?
A: I do not think it’s petty to be angry that someone upstaged your own celebration by getting engaged in the middle of it! Especially since I don’t know if you’ve ever even met the upstager in question—it’s a pretty shocking display of bad judgment and entitlement, and it doesn’t bode well for their forthcoming marriage. I think you should decline to RSVP to the wedding—one is almost tempted to admire the out-of-this-world confidence it takes to send a save-the-date card to someone whose graduation celebration you commandeered, but only almost—and hope your friend comes to her senses and apologizes. I imagine the reason you spoke to her about her son, and not directly to him, is because you didn’t have his contact information because he was a near-stranger to you; that’s the only thing I might have encouraged you to do differently.
Have you considered getting in touch with the friends who got upset on your behalf and asking for a small-scale do-over at someone’s house where you can be sure no one’s kids are going to show up and host an impromptu elopement? I imagine they wish there was more that they could do, and while you might not want to shell out for another expensive dinner, it might feel meaningful to really celebrate your recent accomplishment, with all eyes on you this time.
Q. Fired my niece: My sister-in-law recently begged me to hire her 23-year-old daughter, who has been struggling with mental illness and refuses to stay on her medications. A “stable adult routine” would help her. I offered her a part-time position in my office—basic filing and typing. She wouldn’t even have to answer phones, since social interaction makes her anxious. In her first week, my niece showed up in pajama pants and a hoodie, was more than 15 minutes late three times, and left the office early on Friday without telling anyone. I had to call her twice before she answered. She wasn’t “feeling well.” She posted pictures of herself going to the lake with friends that weekend. She skipped work on Monday. I called her and told her not to bother coming in on Tuesday.
I thought that would be the end of it, but my niece decided to lie to her mother. She had been “run off” because her co-workers used the word crazy around her in a separate conversation. I also was “too hard” on her and didn’t give her enough warnings. How is a reasonable adult to know she needs to dress up and come to work on time? My sister-in-law gave me an earful and my husband responded by telling his sister her daughter was a “manipulator” and to never ask a favor again. I am severely annoyed, and we are now avoiding each other, which means rescheduling to see my husband’s ailing parents. I look back and don’t see where I went wrong, other than trying to help. What should my husband and I do going forward?
A: I mean, I think you went wrong not in “trying to help” but in offering a job to someone you didn’t believe was qualified to do it. That’s not to say it’s your fault that your niece didn’t follow a standard office dress code or bailed early on Friday to go water skiing, but I don’t think you actually did your niece, or your office, any favors by bending the rules about interviewing and setting expectations for her. I also think that, at 23, there’s no reason you should be discussing your niece’s job performance with her mother—even if your niece tries to shoehorn her mother into the conversation by telling her tales of woe about your draconian management style.
Presumably you’ve learned a valuable lesson about not hiring unqualified family members anymore, and you’re not out much more than a week of wasted time—I think you and your husband have both adequately expressed your frustrations to his sister and her daughter and can move on with a clear conscience. If either of them tries to bring it up again, you can cut the conversation short and say, “I’m sorry things didn’t work out, but it’s not worth revisiting that week again. Let’s talk about something else.” You don’t have to convince either of them that you were right to fire her. You fired her! You won. Focus on enjoying the time you spend with your husband’s parents, and if in the future your visits happen to coincide, smile, be polite, and kindly refuse to discuss your niece’s employment prospects other than to wish her the very best.
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Q. I think a married co-worker likes me: It started with him buying me coffee, which I often thought was innocent. Now he’s asking me to lunch once a week, and I can’t say I’m busy every day of the week, so I end up going. It’s always to a restaurant; we take his car and he always insists on paying. He’s asked me out to drinks twice, I said no the first time, but the second time he cornered me into it, asking me on a day we unexpectedly got to leave early, when he knew I wouldn’t have plans after work. He told me earlier that day that I looked really cute.
I thought he might be trying to be nice to me since I’m pretty shy and a lot younger than everyone in the office (he’s 10 years older than me), but my friends seem to think he wants more. They’ve advised me to make up a fake boyfriend, but I think that would get overcomplicated and I’d get caught up in a lie. He’s probably spent $150 to $200 on me so far. I don’t think I’m leading him on in any way. I wouldn’t even be interested in him if he were single. My friend said I needed to take my own car—a woman in the office was gossiping (while he was there too) about someone in our building she thought was having an affair because she’d seen them get out of a car with someone else. I don’t want co-workers to get the wrong idea. The last time we went to lunch I said I’d meet him at the restaurant because I had to make a phone call; he texted me when I was parking saying we could do it another day if I wasn’t feeling like it, so now I feel cornered into getting into his car. Am I overreacting? Could it be innocent?
A: There are a few separate threads here, but I think the most important one is this: “I can’t say I’m busy every day of the week, so I end up going.” It doesn’t sound like you actually enjoy these dinners and drinks, regardless of whether you think he’s trying to butter you up into contemplating an affair with him. So it’s less important to me what a particularly nosy co-worker might think of you and more important to me that you find ways to protect your own time and get used to saying no to someone who’s pushy. That might feel really unfamiliar and even rude, since you say that he’s older than you and you’re usually shy, so it might help to practice before work with someone you trust. But if you tell someone you need to take your own car to an off-site, non-work-related lunch, and their response is “Oh, we can do it another day if you’re not up to it,” then your next move should be to say, “Great, thanks for understanding! I’ll let you know if I have time later this week.” (Then tragically, you fail to find time later this week.)
Again, the important thing to stress here is that it doesn’t matter if it’s “innocent” or not. Regardless of whether he’s hoping to cheat on his wife, I think it’s clear that he’s willing to take advantage of your relative youth, inexperience, and tentative nature in order to get what he wants, even if what he wants is “only” to have a captive audience for lunch once a week. You have the right to say no and to do something else with your lunch hour even if he’s not trying to sleep with you. And you don’t have to come up with an excuse about your busyness. All you have to do is say, “Sorry, I’m not available for lunch this week! I’ve got to get back to work now—have a good day.” Right now, you feel that if he “catches” you without plans, you have no option but to go out with him—but you don’t. Simply tell him, “Sorry, I’m not available for drinks.” It’s not an argument. You’re not giving him information about your plans. It’s just a smooth, solid, conversational wall, and he’s not going to get over it.
There’s a reason he’s not doing this to people who have been at the company as long as he has. He knows they won’t have any trouble saying no to weekly, rambling, non-work-related lunches where he gets to drive. He’s taking advantage of your time because he’s identified in you a certain kind of politeness and instinctive deference to seniority. Pushing back will feel painful and unfamiliar at first, but you have every right to say no to him and you deserve all the help and support you can find as you exercise these new muscles. Good luck!
Q. Husband won’t up his game: I was deliriously happy when my sweet, funny, nerdy now-husband proposed 18 months ago (after two-plus years of dating and 18 months living together), but our relationship has taken a turn for the worse ever since. The pattern started during the wedding planning and got worse when we bought our first house—I am “in charge” of things, he will do as much as he feels like or feels “comfortable” doing, and everything else falls on me. This held even during the period when I was working a very stressful 50-hour-a-week job (still true) and he was unemployed (thankfully, no longer true). I have tried every permutation of talk I can think of (calm, tearful, at home, at a neutral location) to tell him how unloved and unappreciated this makes me feel, but changes are temporary when they happen at all. Nine months of married “bliss” in, and I’m starting to look for the escape hatch—if this were due to depression or ADD or something medical, I’d move heaven and earth to try to help him, but from what I can tell (and from what he’s said) it isn’t. We have so much fun together, but marriage is teamwork, not just playtime. What else can I do? Counseling? Divorce? Put up with it, because every other thirtysomething man who isn’t like that is snapped up by now?
A: One of the first things you can do, I think, is to remind yourself that “thirtysomething men” aren’t a collection of carnival prizes that you have to snatch up before a buzzer sounds. That’s not to say you can’t acknowledge that marriage is important to you, but as long as you treat men in their 30s like a rapidly dwindling resource—“better to grab a lousy one who doesn’t listen to me than risk not having one in the first place”—you’ll use that belief to force yourself to put up with worse and worse behavior. I hope that your partner comes around, but if he never does, I don’t want you to put up with 10 or 15 years of frustration, alienation, and isolation just because you think a millstone of a man is better than no man at all.
I’d recommend therapy. I almost always recommend therapy, but in your case I think it’s especially important, because you’re on the precipice of an important decision: trying to figure out whether you need to leave your husband or if there’s another way you can imagine living in your relationship, one where you don’t feel constantly frustrated. What would it look like if you declined to be “in charge” when you didn’t want to be? How would you handle it if certain things didn’t get done? What are the changes that are most important for you to see in your marriage, and is there any way you can try to tend to some of your own needs while accepting your husband’s (innate or chosen) limitations? You should, I think, find a time to tell your husband that you’re considering divorce, not to scare him into promising you the moon but so he has a clear sense of just how badly things have deteriorated, in case he’s trying to delude himself into thinking this is just a garden-variety rough patch. You only stand to gain by being completely honest. I hope your husband can hear you. I hope he’s able to change the things that lie within his power. I hope you can experience love and appreciation both from your romantic relationships and from other friends and family members in your life. I hope you can begin to understand yourself as a person with a lot of options, rather than a person who’s constrained by a bad actor. Most of all, I hope you don’t try to prematurely force yourself into putting up with a marriage that makes you miserable by convincing yourself that a lousy man is better than no man at all.
Q. Wedding registry: My fiancé and I will be getting married soon in a small ceremony with only immediate family present. This is partly due to the fact we moved across the country for job opportunities. Everyone we know is aware we are getting married. After the wedding day, I was planning on sending postcards to announce we’re married so everyone can have a nice picture of us. My dilemma is this: I created a wedding registry in case anyone did ask us, since we are not having the big white wedding. Friends and my fiancé have suggested I place a link on the postcard for the registry. I feel weird about including it. To me it just says, “Hey, you weren’t invited, but please buy us gifts anyways.” We really could use some things off the registry though. Am I overthinking this?
A: It definitely does say, “Hey, you weren’t invited to the wedding, but please buy us gifts anyway,” to include a registry link on a post-wedding announcement, and I think you should pay attention to that weird feeling! I can understand the circumstances that led to you having a small ceremony halfway across the country from most of your friends, but I think you should tell only your immediate family about the registry and then provide the link to others only if you’re asked about it. My guess is that plenty of people will ask and that you’ll receive at least a few items off the registry, especially since some of your friends are already encouraging you to include the link. You can absolutely send those individual friends a link right now, since they’ve expressed interest! But since you won’t be celebrating with everyone as a group, it’s a bit forward to include the registry as a matter of course along with the announcement.
Q. Emotional support fraud? I’ve been depressed my entire adult life, with a major depressive episode every two to five years. My depression is treatment-resistant. No amount of therapy has made it go away, nor have any of the five-plus antidepressants I’ve used. Two years ago, I adopted a dog, and while it wasn’t for the purpose of emotional support, it turns out that she makes a pretty big impact on my emotional well-being—I tend to self-isolate when I’m sad and her presence helps me feel less lonely; when I’m only borderline functioning, she forces me to leave the house for daily walks, etc. Plus, her happy, goofy disposition raises my spirits in the way that dogs make most people happy. My dog is not officially my emotional support animal, but I feel like she meets all of the criteria, aka helping a mentally ill person more successfully cope with life.
Now I’m about to move out of my pet-friendly apartment and am having a really hard time finding a place that accepts dogs. I’m stressed and anxious about finding my next home, which is, of course, only further affecting my mental health. Would it be unethical to get a letter from my psychiatrist designating my dog as my emotional support animal, when the only reason I’d do this would be to get around a no-pet policy? And if it’s not unethical, how do I even ask my psychiatrist to write this letter without it seeming like I’m gaming the system? I’m painfully aware of the optics of someone “cheating” when it comes to ESAs and feel embarrassed about approaching my doctor with this request.
A: I’ll start by saying that I think the real problem is that certain kinds of housing—usually the most affordable kind—prohibit tenants from having pets, which is not a problem that people with enough money to buy their own homes and condos have to face. It is a fucked-up system that you are trying to “game,” and what you’re trying to “get away with” sounds an awful lot like “being able to cope/occasionally leaving the house/taking care of myself.” You’re not exactly trying to pull off a diamond heist!
Your psychiatrist is concerned about your safety and well-being. They’re not a con artist hoping to run a The Sting–like scam job with you, so if they write a letter on your behalf explaining the ways in which your dog enables you to manage your debilitating depression, then that letter is going to be accurate. Please do not worry about what other people may be doing to “cheat” the system; all you have to worry about is your own dog and your own very real needs. I hope you find a place soon!
Q. My son’s name: In the past year a family member had an early-term miscarriage, at 10 weeks. It was heartbreaking and I understand the loss she feels, as I have also lost two babies in early term. But what bothers me is she took to social media and named her lost baby my son’s name. We live about six hours apart and see each other multiple times a year. I think it is extremely weird. Other family members ask me how I feel about it, and I can’t say I am offended. But I do find it very odd; she talks about her loss all the time. I hate that because I know this pain and I understand, but her naming her dead baby my son’s name just really irritates me. Should I tell her how that made me feel, or just focus on being understanding?
A: I can absolutely imagine that it would be jarring to hear a relative had named a child she’d lost after your own living child, especially if you only found out after the fact. But I also think it’s important to treat her with compassion and remember that she’s not taking anything away from you by naming her miscarried child. I think it’s worth spending a little time asking yourself why this irritates you, especially because people often treat the tragedy or misfortune of others as something contaminating or contagious—is the idea that she’s somehow “tainting” your healthy son by using the same name for the child she lost? Do you think she talks about her loss “too much,” or did you feel, when you suffered your miscarriages, that you didn’t have the space to talk about it as much as you wished you could have? If you need to mute her on social media for a while, that’s perfectly fine. If her grief talk occasionally reminds you of your own miscarriages in a way that’s too painful to handle, I think it’s also fine to say so, and that you need to take a walk and come back when you’ve composed yourself. But I’m not sure that telling her, “Naming your baby after my son irritates me” will accomplish anything useful, compassionate, or productive; no child has a wholly unique name and your son hasn’t lost anything by sharing his.
Q. Re: Fired my niece: I feel like the advice to the employer who tried to help is a little harsh, and it’s solving the wrong problem. Lots of people hire someone in an entry-level position whom they’re trying to help, and I’m not sure where Prudie got the idea that the letter writer knew the employee was unqualified. Everyone who has been in a position to hire for any length of time has given a job to someone she was trying to help who turned out not to be able to handle the job, as well as to someone who turned out to be great. The problem is that the sister-in-law is intervening too much in the daughter’s life and isn’t holding her accountable. And, really, this can’t be the first time that daughter has lied. The letter writer and her husband (and yay for a husband who did get involved—we see a lot of letters where that doesn’t happen) can try to set boundaries, but I don’t see that working. Avoiding the sister-in-law is probably going to end up being the solution.
A: I think the idea that the letter writer knew the niece wasn’t qualified is inherent in the part about hiring her “as a favor,” in what sounds like a truncated or even nonexistent interview process. Even entry-level jobs have a number of meaningful requirements, and I don’t think they’re primarily offered out as a form of charity. Or rather, when they are, it seems to go badly both for the office and the employee in question. I do agree that avoiding the sister-in-law is going to be the most polite and useful strategy for the immediate future!
Q. Re: I think a married co-worker likes me: Here’s what I do when I know I need to cut a conversation short with a co-worker: I will physically only be “half” in the conversation—body slightly tilted, hands on desk, and eyes furtively looking back at my computer screen. After an “I’m not available” followed by a rueful “I’m sorry, I really have to get back to this,” gesturing to the screen. Something just to help with the awkwardness. And it’s perfectly OK to follow up a question (“Oh, what are you doing later?”) with a total non sequitur (“This Pensky project is killing me!”).
A: I think treating your phone or computer like a conversational prop is a great strategy, not because I’m convinced this guy is going to pick up on the hint, but because I think it’ll make the letter writer feel like she has something concrete to steady her during a difficult conversation, which will make saying “No” easier for her. Thanks for the suggestion!
Q. Re: Husband won’t up his game: Hey now! What are fortysomething men? Chopped liver?
A: And some of them are pretty good listeners!
Q. The worst bridezilla: I was a bridezilla, and I’m sorry about it. I laughed at those women who wanted the “perfect fairy tale wedding” that was all about them. And then I got engaged and became one of them. I spent hours poring over bridal magazines, dragging friends to bridal shops, and telling them they were ignorant or worse when they disagreed with me over silly things like the exact shade of ivory I needed for napkins. I told one of my bridesmaids to cover her tattoos. I told another to lose weight. I drove my maid of honor to tears with my constant demands and emails. I made my fiancé drop his brother as best man when I heard him tell my fiancé to end our relationship because I was crazy.
I was crazy. I was wrong. But I don’t know what to do. When I look at the perfect pictures of our wedding, I just feel ashamed of myself. Only one of my bridesmaids will speak to me. My husband’s relationship with his brother is strained because of my behavior. And our marriage is not the greatest. I own it all. I did this terrible stuff. But how do I fix it?
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