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, all! Let’s chat.
Q. Is this creepy, or am I overly sensitive? My wife and I are both in our late 60s and have been married five years. We are both in good health, although I have a few chronic issues that we manage with medication. For some reason, these conditions have convinced her that she will outlive me. She often tells me about how sad she will be without me and how hard it will be to “go on.” It is to the point that my children joke that if I die suddenly, they will request a toxicology screen! When I tell her that her comments make me uncomfortable and are in bad taste, she says that it is statistically more likely I will die first and that she is just stating the facts. Am I overreacting, or is this just plain creepy?
A: It sounds like this is the only way your wife knows how to talk about death with you. I don’t think it’s necessarily the healthiest way imaginable, but her anxieties are understandable, even if the way she’s broaching the subject doesn’t sit well with you. I think the best way to respond in the moment is to offer her the opportunity to have a real conversation about what thus far she’s only been able to hint at, namely end-of-life care, how one of you might face widow/widowerhood, illness and death, etc. Whether or not she takes you up on that, you certainly have the grounds to say, “I don’t want to talk about our future together as if it’s determined by an actuarial table, and at this point you can trust I am extremely aware that I’m statistically likelier to die first. You are not giving me new information by repeating that, but you are making me feel like you’re already preparing for my funeral.”
Q. To lie or not to lie? My 15-year-old wants me to take her to a Pride festival in a nearby town. I completely support her, and I want her to be happy and live her life. However, she has a friend, possibly headed toward a first girlfriend, whose parents are not so supportive. My daughter wants to invite her to go with us, but she wants me to lie about where we are going. This girl is not out to her parents, and I don’t want to be the one to out her. I know how much this means to my daughter and her friend, and I want to be there for them. However, I am very uncomfortable with lying to anyone. I don’t like lying in any situation, ever, and I have always taught my kids the importance of honesty and telling the truth. I told my daughter that I would not offer any information, but I would not lie if asked directly. She says that is not enough. Am I wrong?
A: If you were an aunt or a family friend, I’d feel pretty comfortable saying, “Yeah, absolutely, go for it and lie,” but since this is your daughter’s friend and you’ll probably have to interact with her parents in the future, I understand your reluctance. That said, they’re both 15 years old and looking for queer support—that’s pretty crucial and, I think, worth helping them access. It’s also a little hard for me to imagine that you’re going to be grilled by this girl’s parents. Is it normal, at that age, for parents to speak directly to one another about where one is spending the day? It may just be that things have changed a lot since I was a kid, but at 15 I’d often spend a day out with friends and only give my parents a vague update about where I was going. I can certainly imagine her telling her parents that you’re all going out for the day, shopping and sightseeing and getting lunch, and them not pressing for further details. I can also imagine your daughter might decide to skip the weakest link and get another ride to Pride; there is a limit to scrupulous honesty, and if you really don’t think you can see your way to declining to share information with a teenager’s homophobic parents, your daughter might have to circumvent you more and more often in the future.
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Q. Cat-napping: My roommate lost her damn mind over some guy she met online. She blew off her work, friends, and responsibilities to go be with him in another state. I came home to a note and 20 bucks on the counter to feed her cat. She was gone for two months with no way to reach her. I had to cover the cost of the apartment myself, and I couldn’t afford it. I talked with my landlord, and she let me out of the lease a month early. I lost the deposit, but at least it didn’t affect my credit. I moved out but left all my roommate’s stuff behind. I was worried about the cat, so I asked around and got a friend of a friend to take him. I called, emailed, and left messages on social media for my roommate. Got nothing back. And I have no clue about her family. Out of the blue, my roommate contacted me raging. Her little love affair ended badly, and she was pissed she didn’t have a job or place to stay. She accused me of stealing from her and started whining about her “baby.” I told her she owed me over three grand and that I had zero obligation to take care of her pet. She obviously didn’t care what happened to the cat, and he was better off in the care of someone else. She screamed at me, and I hung up and blocked her. I didn’t have to take care of the cat. If I left him at the apartment, the cat would have gone to the pound and been dead by now. I think I did what I could here. Right?
Q. When is it stalking? I have a question that is more theoretical than an actual problem, but I hope you can still help. I got married seven years ago, and my husband and I are very happy. We met when an old friend of mine had a party we both attended. I had always thought the meeting was an accident/kismet/fated—whatever word you use for “meant to be.” But recently I found out that it wasn’t. In fact, my husband had seen me and thought I was someone he’d like to know. But being a little shy, he didn’t want to approach me. So he found someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew me, and got an invitation to the party and … well, pretty much love at first sight. He was always upfront about this—he actually told me about it on our first official date two days after the party. It never bothered me, and I always thought it was sweet. But recently I mentioned it to an acquaintance, and she said it was stalking and “weird.” What do you say?
A: Your husband fished around for an excuse to be introduced to someone he thought was cute through a few mutual friends; at no point did he violate your boundaries, try to control you, follow you around, or repeatedly bother you with invitations you’d already turned down. Then the two of you went on a lovely first date, he confessed to the slight subterfuge, you were charmed, and it sounds like he’s behaved appropriately and reasonably ever since. It’s a cute story, and your acquaintance was way out of line.
Q. Don’t want to be the mean girl: I would love to get your advice on an increasingly awkward situation. I am fortunate to have a lovely group of friends, all professionals, both partnered and single, who have met by lucky happenstance at a low-key neighborhood “watering hole.” We are a group of 10 or so, and we meet up for dinners out, dinners in at someone’s house, group activities, traveling, etc. Not everyone can attend all the things, but we are open and upfront about group plans. Enter “Karen,” who works at said neighborhood watering hole. She is obviously lonely, without much social interaction. Due to her job, she often overheard us making plans and commented on them, so we would casually include her, because we hated to see anyone excluded.
Fast forward 18 months, and she has been through some lousy things in her personal life. Now every time we go to the neighborhood watering hole, we all get treated to a verbal dump of how bad her life/husband/parents/other job is. She’s such a downer that we’ve started to avoid her and make plans via text so she can’t overhear. This feels really bad to me, and I’m trying to decide what level of honesty is appropriate, given that I consider us friendly acquaintances, and her interpretation of our relationship is that we have a much deeper connection. I dislike the feeling that she observes us all leave the neighborhood watering hole with plans for further socializing that we’ve all arranged via “secret” communiqué. I’ll be clear that we have all made a lot of efforts to support her (emotionally and financially) during her ongoing struggles, though we did it in a very professional manner (giving her an appreciation gift at work, offering her paid housesitting work, etc.). So what say you? We now know why she doesn’t have a lot of friends, because she’s pretty off-putting, but we don’t want to be a nasty clique.
A: I don’t mean to suggest you don’t have a problem here—your discomfort is understandable—but I think a lot of the pressure you’re experiencing right now is coming from the inside. You’ve developed a fairly workable solution where you occasionally let Karen vent, often make arrangements to meet up with your friends elsewhere because Karen’s not a great dinner companion, and you’ve decided to see her less often. That strikes me as pretty reasonable. If you sometimes feel guilty that she sees you leave her bar, the solution there is to let go of that guilt, not to stop going out. If “not spending time with every un-self-aware boor who wants to invite themselves along” makes a group of friends a nasty clique, then there are a lot of nasty cliques in the world. I think you should keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
You might also consider starting to ask her, politely but briskly, to cut her hardship monologues short when she starts monopolizing the conversation. My guess is that your fear is that Karen will someday turn on you and, ignoring everything you’ve ever done for her, will only care about all the times you didn’t invite her out, condemn her boyfriend and her parents and her bosses for hours on end, let her direct the conversation for an entire evening, etc., culminating in calling you a “nasty clique” and trying to make you all feel guilty for liking one another’s company and being good friends. If an unreasonable person hates you for unreasonable reasons, that doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it—it just means they’re being unreasonable. I think “keeping Karen happy” or “living up to Karen’s expectations” should no longer be a goal of yours. So what if someday Karen thinks you are mean? Her definition of mean is not reasonable! What you want is to see your friends and get a nice dinner in the neighborhood. Keep your conversations with Karen brief and upbeat, cut her off when she starts to ramble, and don’t let her keep using the fact that you feel guilt easily to control you.
Q. Greedy: I am the “lead” for a small sales team of mostly young, starving college students. In order to boost morale, I will often bring in pizza (that I buy with my own money). My supervisor is indifferent to the pizza parties, but his wife (who works at a different store) loves them. First time, she popped in and then popped a slice right in her mouth without saying a word to anyone. We all just stared at her. Since then, she buzzes into our break room every time she visits her husband looking for a freebie—“Oh, no pizza today? I was wanting pizza for lunch.”
I have politely taken her aside and told her I bought the pizza with my own money for my team and there wasn’t enough for random visitors. She smiled and nodded. Now she asks all my team members if they have had a slice and then calls “dibs.” This woman is over 30. My 3-year-old nephew has better manners. I really don’t know how to bring this up to my supervisor. I wouldn’t mind if it was him, but he at least works here! Help me—how do I tell my boss his wife is being a greedy guts and to please knock it off? I can’t afford to do much of anything for my team, and they all really like the pizza.
A: I had a letter along much the same lines a few months ago, again dealing with someone who makes more money/has more job security/has absolutely no need to bum a few slices of pizza away from a bunch of brand-new hires. Since this is your supervisor’s wife and you say that it’s a pretty small team, I’m worried that you’ll experience pushback or retaliation if you try to ask him to say something to her. Your best bet might be to find another equally inexpensive way to demonstrate your appreciation to your team that his wife can’t possibly share. Maybe that means taking them off campus to get pizza in a restaurant once in a while, $5 gift cards to a local coffee place, the occasional happy hour—something your supervisor’s wife can’t possibly poach for herself. You can, of course, still say something low-key to her if she keeps chasing that dream of pizza by quizzing all your employees, asking her not to bother them and informing her that the pizza parties are now a thing of the past. I just think it will be easier for you to remove the pizza than to get your seemingly indifferent supervisor to admit his wife behaves rudely and thoughtlessly at work.
Q. Something’s broken between me and my cousin: My cousin and I have been close friends and confidants for most of my adult life. I am the godmother of his daughter. Last year when my mother (his beloved aunt) died, he was very supportive on the phone. But at her funeral I discovered he wasn’t there. Instead, he had chosen to take a plane and spend the weekend with a woman he had met one month earlier and started a long-distance relationship with. After nine months not hearing of him, he sends me a message saying he felt guilty and wants to meet and talk. I replied that he made me feel unimportant and hurt me. Resentment aside, something’s broken, and I couldn’t open up to him nor be a friendly ear for him anymore. I don’t want to be the bitter cousin who makes him pay for letting me down, but I don’t want to fake interest. I don’t know how to state that clearly to him? Of course we’ll meet again at family reunions.
A: You’ve gotten off to a pretty good start—I think you do know how to state this clearly. You told your cousin that he hurt you and made you feel like you didn’t matter, and didn’t agree to meet and talk to him just because he feels ready to do so. That’s significant! Mostly, though, I think you should remind yourself that you don’t have to rush either into agreeing to meet with him or into saying “I’ll never meet with you, ever” right now. Your mother died less than a year ago, and you’re still dealing with the immediate aftermath of her loss and your cousin’s sudden disappearance. It may be that a few years down the line you’ll feel slightly more open to hearing his apology, and if that’s the case, you might be glad you at least left the door open to that possibility. It also might be that you don’t, and you’ll be glad you’ve set a precedent of keeping your distance so you don’t have to be much more than surface-level friendly when you run into each other at your grandmother’s house. It’s absolutely fine to say, “I can appreciate that you feel guilty, but I’m not ready to meet with you and discuss it. What I need from you, more than an apology, is to respect the distance I’m putting between us. I hope you’re doing well, but I need this space.”
Q. Re: Cat-napping: Are we at all concerned about this roommate? This does not seem like normal behavior, and perhaps it’s a possibility that the online guy was some kind of predator? I think the letter writer acted correctly and reasonably, but I also want to extend some empathy to the roommate.
A: It’s possible, although the way the roommate acted on her return suggests more that this was a thoughtless, spur-of-the-moment trip than anything else. If this letter writer were part of this person’s family or a close friend of hers, I’d certainly encourage them to express concern or ask questions about whether they’d been safe or mistreated by this guy while out of state, but when it comes to this particular kind of relationship, I think they’ve done all they can do.
Moreover, the ex-roommate has made it clear that she’s only going to respond to further contact with more accusations and guilt trips, and so I think whatever support she may need in the future, it’s not going to come from the letter writer.
Q. My twin and I share an earth-shattering family secret: My fraternal twin and I (both men) are in our late 30s. We were always extremely close and shared a bedroom growing up. When we were 12 we gradually started experimenting sexually with each other. After a couple of years, we realized we had fallen in love. Of course we felt guilty and ashamed, and we didn’t dare tell anyone what we were doing. We hoped it was “just a phase” that we’d grow out of, but we wound up sleeping together until we left for college. We knew this could ruin our lives, so we made a pact to end it. We attended schools far apart and limited our contact to family holidays. But we never fell out of love with each other, so after graduation we moved in together and have been living very discreetly as a monogamous couple ever since. I’m not writing to you to pass moral judgment on our relationship—we’re at peace and very happy. Our dilemma is how to deal with our increasingly nosy family and friends. They know we’re gay, and we live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, so we’re getting pressure to settle down. I feel we should continue being discreet for the rest of our lives and blow off their questions. It’s nobody’s business, and I fear they would find our relationship shocking and disgusting. My brother, though, is exhausted with this charade. He thinks that if we get the family together with a therapist to talk through the issues, they’ll eventually accept it. I think he’s out of his mind, but I also want to make him happy. Is this one of those times when honesty is not the best policy? If so, how do we get everyone to stop worrying we will die alone? I’m also concerned about the legal implications of this—would the therapist be required to report us to the authorities? Could we go to prison? Read what Prudie had to say.
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