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, comrades! Let’s get to advising.
Q. Hair preferences within a relationship: I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for over three years. He has had a beard as long as I’ve known him. I have a strong preference for facial hair on men, and his beard was one of the reasons I was attracted to him when we first met. Back then, he kept it trimmed fairly short and maintained it very well. (He still shaved his neck and the beard’s edges on a daily basis.)
Over this past winter, he decided he wanted to grow a longer, fuller beard. It is now very bushy, as long as his collarbone (and growing), and he does not make much effort to maintain it. He does not shampoo it or use any other products to keep it clean, shiny, or nice-smelling. His mustache retains a lot of liquid after showering, sweating, or drinking, which makes it hard to kiss him. He also absent-mindedly chews the ends of his mustache and the sound drives me crazy! I’ve told him that I don’t really like the longer beard and wish that he would take better care of it or trim it back to the length it was before. I have even bought products specifically designed to help maintain a big beard—combs, beard oil and balm, etc., but he refuses to use them because that would make him a “hipster.” He maintains that it’s his hair and he can do with it what he likes. My opinion is that if you’re going to have a mass of hair the size of a small animal on your face, you should maintain it so that it is pleasant to look at and be in close proximity to.
I understand that ultimately it is not my choice, but at this point I’m no longer attracted to him because of the beard and I feel embarrassed of him sometimes because it is so unkempt. How can I get him to take better care of his facial hair? Side note: At his request I have been growing out my own hair (against my usual preference) because he prefers long hair on women. Does that factor into his obligation to maintain his beard in a way that I find attractive?
A: I don’t think it’s exactly about maintaining his beard in a way you find “attractive”—this isn’t like his long-hair thing, where it’s only a matter of aesthetic appreciation. This has to do with hygiene, having to worry about kissing someone while dodging the little pockets of food trapped in front of his face, getting your own face wet with beard sweat, and listening to the sound of a hundred little beard hairs being chewed at once. It’s a matter of comfort, of cleanliness, of something that comes into your own personal space and changes the way you can be intimate with him. At this point it’s not just that you’re no longer attracted to his beard.
I think it’s also true that you’re turned off by his total indifference to your comfort and inability to keep himself vaguely groomed. I’m not really worried about what is or isn’t his obligation, and I think it’s a red herring to try to turn this into a math problem (“If I give you X inches of longer hair, you owe me Y hours of cleaning your beard”). I think the key here is that you’re no longer attracted to him, that he’s demonstrated zero interest in doing pretty low-impact maintenance like shampooing his beard or refraining from chewing on it in front of you, and that he’s not listening to you. It sounds like you’ve tried very hard to get him to take better care of his facial care, everything short of washing and grooming it yourself while he’s asleep. I don’t think it’s working, and I think you need to accept that he isn’t going to do it. What if you found a boyfriend who did keep his face clean and listened to you?
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Q. Dealing with porn: My boyfriend and I are both recently divorced (less than two years) from decades-long emotionally abusive marriages. After 18 months of living together, we’ve worked through a lot and identified some emotional triggers for each of us to avoid. Prior to divorcing, our families were acquainted with each other for many years. We only started seeing each other in a romantic light when we separated from our spouses and spent time together discussing our respective misery. My ex had rage issues and severe mood swings, used emotional extortion, and was prone to drama and frequent lying to avoid confrontation. My boyfriend’s ex was mentally ill, habitually cruel and deprecating in public and private life, and was prone to sexual and emotional blackmail, resulting in months and even years without sex. Neither of us wants to repeat past patterns. I try to be more open and direct with my feelings and needs in an effort to avoid becoming the doormat I was before.
My boyfriend, however, is much less comfortable talking about his feelings and needs, claiming that he is unaware of them until they just suddenly surface. The mistreatment of his marriage left him with a sex partner that is not easily divorced: porn. I never realized just how critical this partner was. I’m fine with porn and have used it on my own from time to time. I’ve even agreed to watch with him periodically. However, his use is very different. He cannot climax with me. He can only climax on his own with the aid of porn. Even then, it doesn’t usually happen until after an hour or more of hopping from one video to another. While I’m aware that most porn does not exemplify respectful treatment of women, the videos he’s most frequently drawn to portray women as sluts engaged in a variety of male-centric pleasuring acts with multiple partners. My boyfriend is also more aroused when I let him call me “slut” or “bitch” during sex. He claims he loves me but doesn’t seem to either be aware of or interested in what that really looks like (during sex or even outside of sex). He has ended up proposing multiple times, usually during or after sex, only to denounce these offers later as “stupidly said.” I know he has issues, but he seems to be unaware of how badly his marriage affected him. While it’s possible that he has been this way since early adulthood, he and others assure me that was not the case.
I’m good friends with his mother, and she is one of the strongest and most independent-minded women I’ve known. She would be sick if she knew her son behaved this way. I know we both need time to heal, and I’m not in a rush to do anything more than just enjoy spending time with him one day at a time. That said, I’m keenly aware that I may end up caught in another bad dead-end relationship. I see a counselor on a regular basis. I would love to have him join me from time to time to work through some of these issues or even to support him in seeking help on his own to deal with his demons. So far, he has resisted. Am I delusional in my hope that what we have is worth fighting for? Should I take a different approach to this?
A: I’m so glad you’re seeing a therapist and that you were able to leave your ex. It’s wonderful that you’re committed to changing old patterns and finding new ways to prioritize your own wellbeing—I hope that continues to serve you well. But I think this relationship you’re in right now only looks salvageable compared with your abusive marriage. Let’s take a look at how you describe your current partner: He doesn’t talk about his thoughts or feelings, claims not to know what he wants, doesn’t seem particularly interested in your sexual enjoyment, asks you to marry him during sex and later takes it back by calling the very idea “stupidly said,” is uninterested in therapy, and is in fact uninterested in examining his own behavior, learning from the past, or planning for the future, and you believe that his own mother would be sick if she knew how he treated you. I don’t want you to beat yourself up and consider yourself “delusional” or a “doormat” just because you’ve wanted your partner to be a better person than he is, but I do think you know, on some level, that he is not interested in being present, engaged, or available in this relationship.
The challenge for you, I think, will be in resisting the urge to sympathize with him. His last marriage sounds terrible, and I have no doubt that he’s suffered a great deal. But the question isn’t “Do I understand why he acts the way he does based on his own painful history?” The question is “Does my boyfriend treat me well?” And the answer to that, very obviously, is no. If you stay and fight for this relationship to continue, I think you can be fairly confident that you will be the only person fighting. Wish him the best, hope that he chooses healing and growth in the future, and let him go.
Q. Mother: My older brother was the kid who tortured and killed neighborhood pets. As he got older, he got more violent. He got sent to juvie at 12 for attacking a girl with scissors. I was terrified of him. Our mother thought he walked on water; nothing could convince her that her baby boy was bad. Our father stayed in the marriage because of my little sister and me. When he was 17, my brother attacked me, breaking my collarbone and several of my ribs, and puncturing a lung. I was lucky our father came home early and stopped him. To this day, I am convinced he would have killed me if he hadn’t been stopped. My mother supported my brother all through the trial. My father filed for divorce and got full custody of my sister and me. I haven’t talked to my mother in years. The last time we did, she was trying to get me to make a positive statement because my brother was up for parole on his assault conviction.
My little sister grew up, only vaguely aware of what happened. She is 20 now and expecting a baby. She has reconnected with our mother. We don’t talk about either my mother or brother, but my sister wants me to reconcile with our mother. I am concerned because she plans to leave the baby with our mother when she works. (I see the Facebook posts.) My brother is in prison again but due to get out next year. Our mother always takes him in. I am terrified of him being anywhere near a child, let alone an infant. My sister’s boyfriend has only gotten the edited version of our family history from my sister and mother. He thinks our brother is in prison for getting caught with too much weed. We have only met a few times, and assault stories are not exactly ice breakers. I didn’t know my sister was lying to him until she warned me off from “spoiling things” and told me how she wanted a “clean slate” with our mother. I brought up my concerns and she flat-out refused to listen to me. Our mother “promised” her it wouldn’t be a problem.
I remember exactly the worth of our mother’s promises, and I remember what it feels like to breathe blood. Do I go behind my sister’s back here? All I have to do is tell her boyfriend to do a Google search and he will see the long list of violent convictions my brother has and understand why I don’t speak to our mother anymore. I am just terrified my sister will cut me out of her life. Dad died of cancer two years ago, and she is the only living family I have left. If something happens to the baby, I would never forgive myself.
A: I understand your fear and grief at the prospect of losing your sister, since she’s the only connection you still have with your family. But I think the key here is that your first priority is the child’s safety—you know your brother will come back to your mother’s home once he’s out of prison, and it doesn’t sound like you have any reason to believe he’s changed his ways and is now committed to a life of peace and nonviolence. I think telling your sister’s partner is the right thing to do, even though I agree it’s very likely she will get angry with you and hold you responsible for your brother’s violence and your mother’s enabling. But right now he doesn’t realize how much danger his as-yet unborn child is in, and this is information he deserves to have.
My only other thought here is that you say your sister grew up only “vaguely aware” of what happened. I realize you may not want to revisit every single painful detail of your childhood with her, but if you think there’s a chance she might change her mind if she realized the extent of his violence and how close you yourself came to death at his hands, it might be worth one final conversation with her before trying her boyfriend. If she’s only gotten the edited version of the story from your mother, it may be that hearing what really happened will jolt her back into reality and common sense. I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in this situation in the first place, and I hope you have a lot of other people in your life who can help you through this.
Q. Not a cuddler: I am newly married to a wonderful guy whom I love very much. We live in a busy, expensive city in a small but comfortable apartment. We also share a full bed due to the size of our bedroom. We are pretty average-size people and have mostly gotten used to our cramped sleeping space. The problem I’m dealing with is that he is a cuddler (he wraps his arms fully around me and falls dead asleep) and I am not. Sometimes I tell him that I love him very much but that I need space. Sometimes I just let him cuddle me and sleep horribly. Either way, he is extremely sensitive to this and usually rolls over in a huff if I object. How do I express to him that, as much as I love him, I just don’t like to cuddle?
A: Talk about this with him when you’re out of bed and hours away from going to sleep so that falling asleep in a huff isn’t an option. You don’t need to say more than what you said to me—that you can’t sleep when he holds you all night. It may be that the two of you need a bigger bed (even at the expense of floor space in your bedroom); it may be that he needs to talk about some feelings of rejection or surprise he experiences when you don’t want to cuddle: “It’s clear that this really bothers you, and I want to know more about what you’re feeling when you pull away from me.” There may be something else going on entirely. But it’ll help to talk honestly and lovingly about it when you’re sitting upright in the middle of the day.
Q. Daughter’s boyfriend and sleeping arrangements: I am a 60-year-old widow. My 41-year-old daughter (also a widow) lives with me and her children, ages 11, 10, and 8. Her boyfriend sleeps over in her room several times a week. She has never asked permission. I’m afraid that since I did not stop it when I became aware of it, it is too late to say anything now, kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out. I am concerned about the message it sends to the kids. Your advice?
A: I think the only message it will send to the kids is that their mother is an adult with a boyfriend. The cat is already out of the bag when it comes to whether your 41-year-old daughter has had sex, because she has three children, and it’s perfectly appropriate for two adults in a long-term relationship to share a bed. If the kids were also sleeping in their mother’s bedroom, I might understand your concern, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. It would have been odd if your grown daughter had asked your permission to share a bed with her boyfriend. That said, if you want to have a conversation with her about how often you can accommodate guests in your home, or ask her to give you a heads-up so you’re not surprised by the sight of her boyfriend in the guest bathroom when you’re not expecting him, that’s perfectly reasonable. But the horse got out long before these occasional sleepovers—at least 11 years and nine months ago. (And the horse should get out! Horses need to get out of barns every once in a while.)
Q. Re: Dealing with porn: People don’t change unless they want to, and are in pain or conflict about something. It’s difficult to make any kind of change after a lifetime of doing something. You cannot change him or count on him changing. You have to accept him as he is and then decide if that’s what you want. Breaking up with him doesn’t mean you are not compassionate or caring. But after your own bad marriage, you must take care of yourself. You deserve better than what either of these men has given or done to you.
A: I think that’s really key here—I think the letter writer is afraid of “abandoning” him because of his painful history, as if breaking up with someone were a referendum on whether someone is a salvageable or worthwhile human being. But the bar for ending a relationship shouldn’t be “I’m constantly miserable and they’re maximally, willfully abusive.” It should be “things aren’t working between us, and I don’t see any signs they’re getting better.”
Q. That’s not my name! I am a 26-year-old trans woman. I have been on hormone therapy for two years, and about six months after starting, I came out to my parents (who I feared would take it poorly) and younger brother. My family was completely fine with it, though they did suggest not telling my then–3-year-old niece until she was a little older. Flash forward two years, and they still call me by my deadname even though I’ve legally changed my name, and refer to me as he/him, “your brother,” or “Son” to my face and everyone they know. It hurts, especially when my niece (who I believe should know now, in her formative years) calls me “Uncle [Deadname].” I want them to stop and call me by the name I’ve chosen, but I fear any pushback from me will make them angry. I’ve already been lectured by managers, co-workers, and even friends about giving people time to come to terms with change, but a year and a half feels like plenty of time. Should I say something to them, or should I allow them more time?
A: Absolutely you can say something to them! I think if the coming-out conversation you had with them 18 months ago is the only conversation you’ve ever had with your family about your transition, there’s a lot of opportunity to share more here, especially since their initial reaction was a good one and they at least want to support you. Think about whether you think they’d be more receptive to having these talks individually or as a group (and of course take your own energy levels into account; you may feel daunted at the prospect of having the same conversation three times in a row).
It’s tricky, too, the question of time as it relates to transition—there are ways in which, as you’ve already seen, people can ask for “time” endlessly and without a sense of purpose, in which they claim to need to come to terms with change but in fact have no plans to deal with change or engage with reality at all. There is a vast difference between saying “I need some time” and then going off and doing necessary emotional and relational work for a few months before making changes in one’s life, and endlessly delaying any sort of meaningful follow-up to your coming out. One way you might broach the subject is by asking them what this time has meant to them—how have they used the past 18 months? What questions have they asked of themselves? What have they learned about transition? What resources have they sought out, what have they wondered, what have they sought to understand? You don’t have to ask this confrontationally, but don’t rush to reassure them if they grow uncomfortable and acknowledge they haven’t done any of those things. (Perhaps they will pleasantly surprise you!) Consider what you would like them to know about what transition has been like for you, and have a short-but-comprehensive version of what’s been meaningful/exciting/powerful to you about the past two years.
Tell them you’ve noticed they haven’t yet started using your name, and that you’re ready to ask them what they might need in order to try. Tell them, too, that you’re ready to start talking to your niece about your transition, and that you’re available for questions they may have. It will also help to let them know you’re going to start correcting them when they don’t use your name: “Not to embarrass you or turn the occasional slip-up into a big production, but it’s my name, and it’s important to me that you use it.” Mostly, I think, you should not think of this as the second conversation, but the start of a new way of talking about transition with your family. That’s not to say you have to make yourself available around the clock for questions that may be intrusive or combative, nor that you have to exhaust yourself trying to convince them of anything, but if they’ve been generally positive but practically clueless and you’ve never revisited that original coming-out conversation, I think there’s a lot of room for growth here.
Q. Re: Not a cuddler: This is like watching a flashback post of me from 10 years ago! My spouse is a huge cuddler and I’m a toss-and-turner, so eventually we compromised with two things: a king-size bed, and a ton of more pillows for him to hold onto in his sleep. It’s made a TON of difference.
A: The pillows are a great idea! I imagine a king-size bed wouldn’t be possible in their current apartment, but they might just be able to get away with a queen-size mattress. And I think it’s worth figuring out what it is that he’s responding to in the moment when he gets huffy: Does he want to be more physically demonstrative throughout the day? Are there ways to get in quality “cuddling/embracing/talking about our day together” time in bed but before they go to sleep so he doesn’t feel like they’re just turning their backs on one another and passing out? This is a not-at-all-uncommon problem, and a lot of couples have to figure out their way through it.
Q. Update: Saving up for an anniversary trip: I followed your advice and spoke to my husband about this. After some back and forth, we are still planning on saving up for our anniversary trip! He’s even OK with us both working together to put money away to hit our savings goal. While we are not rolling in money, we are stable enough financially where if we really wanted, we could save up $10K in much less than six years if we really tightened up our budget. We are changing it up too, and will see the Grand Prix in Japan instead, where for the same cost we can spend two to three weeks on vacation instead of one!
A: Oh, congratulations! I’m so glad that the two of you are on the same page and have been able to find ways to save money together and extend your trip. I hope you both have a fabulous time. (Maybe you can surprise him with something smaller-scale on the trip itself!)
Q. Literal baggage: I’ve been dating a fantastic man whom I love for about a year. We’re living together and everything has been ideal. Well, almost everything. After listening to a podcast together about a similar subject, he mentioned that he has a box of nude photos of various exes. He said that he doesn’t look at the photos but nonetheless refuses to get rid of them. He knows how uncomfortable it makes me to have these photos in our home but thinks this is a “slippery slope,” and that next I’ll be insisting he get rid of his wedding album and all other remnants of his former relationships. I feel like the naked pics of his exes are more important to him than I am. I do everything in my power to make him comfortable in our relationship—including neglecting a friendship with a guy I used to hook up with. Not only does it offend and sadden me that this box is so meaningful to him, but I’m terrified that I’ll accidentally uncover it at some point. Am I just insecure, or is this unacceptable?
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