Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Three’s a crowd: My husband and I have been together for about seven years. In that time we (thankfully!) have never had any big arguments or disagreements. We’re both pretty independent people who enjoy living their own lives while still being able to come home to a loving home. Neither of us has ever really had any issues with each other’s friends, and over time our friend groups have seemingly meshed into a shared conglomerate. The issue is, an old friend of my husband’s has reentered the picture and she is really throwing a wrench in things. The two reconnected while I was backpacking abroad alone, as my husband dislikes traveling. Since then, the two have seen each other practically every day and are in constant contact—even having phone conversations all hours of the night! While I was abroad, I booked a room in an area that made me nervous and asked my husband to be available for around an hour as I wanted to have him on the phone with me while I walked the mile to catch my bus. During that time, he was with this other woman and ignored all of my calls and texts. While there wasn’t much he could do from an ocean away, it was a comfort thing for me and he was totally unapologetic. Since coming home, it has been worse, with him blowing me off to spend time with her.
He is also constantly carrying on text conversations with her while we are sharing alone time or hanging out with mutual friends, distancing himself from what is happening outside of his screen. He has fallen asleep at her place a few times because the two of them smoke in her apartment and he passes out afterward and leaves me hanging without any word for hours where he is or if he is coming home. We have other friends’ places that he’s spent the night at before and it isn’t an issue, but with how this woman has been prioritized over me, this behavior has become more upsetting. My husband has even introduced her to a group of friends I haven’t met before because they come from one of his hobbies that he pursues on his own; for me, he previously used the excuse that the situations in which he hangs out with those friends are “guy time.” We rarely do things together anymore, as he opts to spend time with her and her friends, occasions when I am decidedly not invited. My husband and I frequently use each other’s phones interchangeably, as they are hooked up to all the electronics in our home, but when I grabbed his off the counter the other day to change a song that was casting, I found he put a passlock on it. This is just the tip of the iceberg with this woman, and I can go on about the ways the pair acts more like a couple and less like close friends but I’ll spare everyone the novel.
Prudie, I’m very hurt and I have tried to set boundaries with my husband in regard to this woman, but he shrugs me off as overreacting or being jealous. I don’t think I’m jealous of this woman but more resentful that I, his wife, am now a second thought rather than a priority. Because all of our friends are OUR friends, I feel like I have no one to talk to who will be objective or not look at my husband differently after I tell them about this. My husband says that they are just friends and connect really well and that nothing has ever happened nor will ever happen between them, but I can’t help but feel like I should stop this now before things get even worse. None of his other friendships with women have ever bothered me like this. And because neither of us has ever set boundaries before, I feel like I have made my bed and have to lie in it until one of the pair actually crosses a line into nonmonogamous territory. How do I make him see I feel less and less like a priority with each passing day? Or am I really just overreacting and need to get over this new woman in my husband’s life?
A: You should definitely be jealous! Or, at least, if you would like to be, you have every right to be; you don’t have to wait until this “crosses a line into nonmonogamous territory.” (You can just call it cheating, which is what’s happening.) This isn’t about “making him see” anything, because this isn’t up for debate; it’s a simple fact that he’s now got a new girlfriend in everything but name. If you were to make yourself “get over this,” you would find yourself pushed further and further to the side until you were an afterthought in your own home. Please start talking to your friends about what’s going on in your marriage; if they look at your husband differently because he’s openly cheating on you, then they should.
And let’s be clear: He’s cheating on you. Right now. Maybe they haven’t had sex yet, but he is cheating on you. This is not a fun new friendship that you can learn to make room for, and this isn’t “your fault” for not mentioning sooner, “Hey, if you suddenly started spending every day with another woman, blowing me off for her when I’m in another country and scared about my personal safety, hiding your conversations with her from me, and spending the night with her without telling me, I’d really hate that, so please don’t.” That is a pretty universal boundary, and you don’t have to put up with all of this just because you failed to mention before that you don’t like being cheated on. If your husband is willing to see a therapist with you, acknowledge that he’s had an affair (rather than trying to adhere to the little-kid rule of “Well, we weren’t technically touching, so it’s not breaking the rules!”), and reprioritize your marriage and your boundaries, then maybe there’s a way to move forward here. But if all he wants to do is insist he’s not doing anything wrong and that there’s something wrong with you for noticing all of these changes, then you deserve better, and you should leave. He knows he’s not prioritizing you. It’s not that you’re doing a bad job of explaining it. He’s doing it on purpose and pretending he isn’t, which is designed to make you feel insecure and confused and like you have no right to expect attention or care from your own husband.
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Q. Feeling guilty for wanting to move out: I’m a 26-year-old woman who lives at home with my three adult siblings and my mother. After college, I put my plans to move out of the state on hold to financially and emotionally support my family after my father’s death, under the promise from my family that this arrangement would last a year at most. Three years have passed, and I’m still carrying that burden. My siblings either purposefully work part-time or not at all, and my mother often squanders away her disability benefits. I want to move out and live with my girlfriend of two years, but I keep postponing my move because my family begs me to. Am I obligated to stay until my family learns how to be responsible?
A: I think your family won’t learn how to be responsible until you move out. They will beg you to stay every time you consider moving forward with your own life, and then they will do nothing with that additional time in order to prepare for your eventual departure. They seem unlikely to ever live up to their end of a promise, and I don’t think they’re going to look out for you in the way that you’re looking out for them. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you or that they’re monsters, but it’s time for you to put your own future first right now (because no one else in your family is going to do that for you).
Make your plans to move out. Be clear about them. If your family objects, or begs, or insists that they’ll fall apart the second you leave, smile graciously and say, “I’m sorry to hear that! But my last date here is ____, and you’ll have to figure something out.” There will likely always be something, some new crisis, some last-minute problem that you and only you can fix, and it will be hard for you to say, “Yep, my mom and sister and brother have a problem they need to solve, I’m not going to solve it for them, and I’m not sure how they’re going to solve it, but I’m going to walk away regardless.” As long as you stay, they have no incentive to become self-sufficient; move in with your girlfriend and take a step back from keeping your family afloat. That doesn’t mean you have to cut them off or stop caring about them, but you don’t have to accept the premise that none of them can do their own laundry or set their own monthly budget without you. They did it before you moved in; they can do it again once you’ve moved out.
Q. Judge of character: An ex-coworker, “Daniel,” recently got back in touch with me and asked if he could put me down as a personal reference when he applied to my workplace’s police force. (I work in a forensic hospital.) We had always gotten along well and he was a hard worker, so I told him yes without thinking too much about it.
About a week later, I got an email from the police force. It turned out that I had to complete a five-page-long questionnaire about Daniel’s character. One of the questions asked if Daniel had ever exhibited bias that would cause him to behave unprofessionally toward members of the LGBTQ community. This gave me pause. I remembered Daniel making derogatory remarks about trans people and expressing disgust toward them when we worked together. I suddenly felt concerned that my positive input would place him in a position of power over vulnerable people. I expressed my misgivings to my parents later while out to dinner with them … and they completely tore into me. They asked: How could I think about not giving a positive referral for someone I supposedly liked? How could I stop someone’s potential career like that? They also insinuated that I was a coldhearted and terrible person for agreeing to help Daniel out just to “betray his trust.” Their reaction really hurt me; they’ve never even met Daniel!
I ultimately did give Daniel a mediocre referral. As a closeted lesbian woman, it just felt like too much of a betrayal to the LGBTQ community to do otherwise. Although now I’m upset with my parents and can’t fully explain to them why. Should I have handled the situation differently? Do you think I judged Daniel too harshly? And how can I let my parents know they hurt me?
A: If you are asked to serve as a character reference, it is your job to give the most accurate account of someone’s character that you possibly can. The only thing I would advise you to do differently in the future is to give a lot of thought to requests to act as a reference, and if you feel even a little hesitation (not knowing someone very well, or not having seen them in a couple of years, is certainly grounds for hesitation), say so openly and decline. But you were asked if you had reason to believe Daniel might have trouble behaving respectfully and professionally toward LGBTQ people, and you have specific, recent knowledge that he feels comfortable expressing his disgust toward trans people while he’s at work. That’s relevant; that’s recent; that’s something you know to be true. At the point that you realized you might not be able to write the reference you’d initially hoped to, you didn’t have many options left: If you’d backed out, the hiring team would have known that you’d quit, and they would rightly wonder why. Lying would have been, well, you know, lying.
There’s a longer answer here, I suspect, about whether you might ever want to come out to your parents, but since that’s not why you wrote to me I’ll put it to the side for now. Your parents seem to think that acting as a professional character reference is about making sure that someone gets the job they want the minute they want it (particularly a job that involves carrying a gun and having a pretty significant amount of institutional power behind that gun), rather than faithfully and honestly trying to portray an accurate portrait of the candidate as you know them. You didn’t accept hoping to secretly torpedo his career. You didn’t answer questions you weren’t asked. Daniel decided that someone who’s heard him disparage trans people at work would serve as an excellent character reference for him (which says something about his judgment), you were asked a direct question, and you gave a direct answer. When it comes to your parents, all you need to say is this: “I’ve gone back-and-forth on this, but ultimately I’m glad I was honest. I don’t think Daniel’s entitled to this job just because he wants it. I also think that any jobs involving power, weapons, and institutional authority should screen applicants more thoroughly than jobs that don’t. I’m glad I didn’t lie. I hope you don’t wish I had either. But even if you disagree, and you think he has some inalienable right to become a police officer that I’ve somehow squashed, what’s done is done, and there’s no point continuing to discuss it.”
Q. Crazy belly button: All my life, I have sworn up and down that I would never have plastic surgery, barring some major medical event (like breast cancer). Fast forward two kids later, and my husband has asked me to get my belly button looked at. Pregnancy and childbirth have left me with a major outie, and his main complaint is that I hate having it touched, which means he can’t touch my stomach. We’ve been together over a decade and he’s a wonderful, supportive partner. He loves me without makeup and has never asked me to modify my body in any way. And yet, what would I tell my daughter if I got surgery for the sake of appearances, or let a man tell me to fix my body? Part of me thinks this request isn’t unreasonable, and part of me balks at unnecessary surgery. We’re done having kids, and it is a pretty crazy belly button.
A: First, let’s leave aside the hypothetical: You do not ever have to tell your daughter about this, so I don’t think you ought to spend much time worrying about how this will affect her. (My guess is that it won’t.) Nor, if you ever do tell her, would it suddenly turn her into a desperate, spineless, surgery bunny willing to get a new nose the first time a boyfriend says he doesn’t like the shape of hers. Moreover, this isn’t a surgery you’re contemplating “for the sake of appearance”; your husband is happy to touch your stomach as is, but that either causes you discomfort or makes you feel self-conscious. So what you’re considering has to do with physical and emotional intimacy, touch, and closeness, not just what you look like in a bikini. There are a number of questions before you right now, like: Why has it felt so important to your sense of self that you never have any kind of plastic surgery? Does this particular surgery have many potential downsides or risks? Is part of you afraid that once you open the door to surgical intervention you won’t have a sense of when to stop? Can you afford the procedure, and are there any potential side effects that would make you reconsider?
If you would like to talk about nonsurgical interventions with your husband—that’s assuming your new belly button doesn’t cause you pain—or practicing a sort of “exposure therapy” as you two find ways to touch a part of your body that makes you uncomfortable, then I think that would be a fine alternative (or counterpart) to having a surgeon take a look. Moreover, I don’t think you’re considering this because “a man” is telling you “to fix your body.” Your husband, who it sounds like generally cherishes and respects you, misses being able to touch your stomach and has (perhaps clumsily) floated the idea of a surgical option because he knows you hate when he tries to touch you right now. You still may decide that you don’t want to do it, of course, but it really doesn’t sound like he’s coming at this from a place of punishing, exacting beauty standards.
Q. Re: Feeling guilty for wanting to move out: Before you move, make sure NO ONE has access to any of your financial information. Sign up for credit monitoring and use it religiously. Do this before you tell them the final time, and honestly I would store my documents in a secure place not on your property as well. I am honestly not super confident that you will be able to resist them if you are seen to be preparing to move out of the house … I would try to pack my things slowly on my way out and move a little at a time or entirely move while they were out of the house at some point after the date I “promised” to move out if I were you.
A: I totally agree about securing your financial information and monitoring your credit; I hope that you never have to use those tools but I think it’s right to prepare for the worst. I do think it’s better to be upfront and brisk about the move-out date, however, especially since the letter writer is having trouble putting her own needs first. It’ll be good practice.
Q. Responding to questions about estranged family: A few years ago, my child disclosed that they were molested by my father. We reported it to the police, he was arrested and convicted, and he’s now serving life in prison. My entire birth family chose to side with him rather than believe my child. I have not spoken to any of them since the day he was arrested. They have all relocated and no longer live in the small community that we once all lived in and where I still reside. In addition, my sibling used to work at the same place I am still employed at.
Unfortunately, gossip about this has not traveled as far and wide as I would have hoped, and I am still blindsided by people at my job and in the community who ask after my estranged family members. This is extremely triggering for me, and I have not figured out the best way to respond. I have tried saying, “Oh we aren’t in contact” or “we haven’t spoken in years” but many still press on with further questions. While I am not embarrassed about what happened to my child, and in fact, I am incredibly proud of the resilience and strength they showed during the trial and the aftermath, I would like a good response that shuts down further questions and comments and does not invite them to ask after my family the next time I run into the person. Do you have any recommendations?
A: The world is your oyster, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so glad your kid has you in their corner. Thank you for standing up for them. As proud as you are of your kid, I can understand why you don’t necessarily want to bring up the nature of your father’s arrest without checking in with your kid first (especially with co-workers, or with people who’ve already demonstrated they have trouble taking a hint about asking unwelcome questions). I think a straightforward “We don’t have a relationship—it’s a matter of personal safety. Thanks for understanding and not asking more questions about them” will fit the bill just fine. But when it comes to people you don’t work with, or repeat offenders, you might consider something a bit more obvious, like “We haven’t spoken since my father was arrested. It’s a painful subject, and I appreciate your understanding, but I don’t think we’re likely to speak again, and I hope you’ll do me the kindness of not asking after ____ next time we meet.”
Q. Registering for a move: I’m having what feels like a silly modern-day etiquette dilemma. I’m in my early 30s, and I recently bought a house (yay) a few hours outside my big coastal millennial city. Many of my friends have asked me what I want for a housewarming gift. I’m single and doubt I’ll get married before 35, if it all. If they’re offering, is it OK to point them to the LeCreuset I will never afford on my own? There’s no Macy’s category for this.
A: Sure, if a lot of your friends are asking about buying you presents, there’s no reason not to answer their questions. If you want to offer the option of going in a group gift (let’s say you’re worried about offending someone by implying you’re expecting them to shell out hundreds of dollars they may not have), you certainly can; you might also consider opening a housewarming registry and sending the link over to anyone who inquires. There’s no obligation on anyone’s part, and you can always cook them a lovely meal in the new LeCreuset as thanks someday.
Q. Two against one: I have two roommates; we’ll call them Nancy and June. Nancy and I have lived together for many years and get along very well. June recently moved in. We do not have much in common but we get along fine. Nancy has recently hit it off with June because June enjoys social activities (drinking, dating, etc.) that I don’t have much of an interest in. Nancy and June have been socializing frequently and Nancy even invited June on a vacation for her birthday that I was not invited to. This is not a trip that I would normally have an interest in, but it hurts feeling like the odd one out. I do enjoy my living situation, but do you have any tips on how to navigate when the other roommates are suddenly closer?
A: I think it will help to remind yourself that the activities bringing Nancy and June closer would bore you to absolute tears. You do not want to go drinking or dating! (Do you? You say you don’t have “much of an interest in” them, but if part of you feels like you might like to try it, even if only once or twice a year, I think it’s perfectly fine to ask! “Hey, I think I might like to go out some night this week. Would either of you care to join me? I’m not really sure where to go or what to wear, so if you have any suggestions … ”)
Beyond that, it sounds like you and Nancy still get along well, so it’s definitely a point in all of your favors that she and June aren’t celebrating their newfound closeness by pointedly excluding you. Every once in a while, ask them if they’d like to make dinner together or have a movie night at home so they’re not the only ones scheduling activities. But in the long run, it will help to think of them as friendly roommates, rather than friends you live with, and to call your real friends when you want someone to spend quality time with.
Q. Re: Judge of character: I think it’s important the people considering him for the job know he’s said things like that. If you felt you didn’t want to be put in that position, you could have gone back to him, apologized, and explained that you didn’t realize how in-depth the reference would be and that you don’t know him well enough to provide a reference. But the police force specifically asked about this and they need to know his views.
A: Yes, ideally the letter writer wouldn’t have agreed to act as a reference without asking more questions of Daniel first, or taking her time and reflecting on whether she’d be able to supply a really thorough, robust one. But it sounds like she had forgotten his transphobic comments until she was confronted with that specific question about LGBTQ people, and at that point her options were really limited. Either you think it’s your responsibility as a character reference to honestly and accurately attempt to assess someone else’s character, or you think it’s your responsibility to lie and make sure your friend gets the job they want no matter what; I usually think it’s the former.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From How to Do It
Please settle this score: My girlfriend no longer wants to shave her armpits (hetero couple). I admitted this wasn’t my preference but recognized it was likely for bullshit reasons and she went ahead. We still screw with abandon. However, I also took this as an opportunity to stop trimming myself downstairs, because honestly it gets itchy and I was only doing it for her. She was fine at first, but now seems reluctant to give blow jobs because of the unintended floss. I want to leave it! Do you think this goes both ways, or is it totally different? (For the record, we love each other, and this has been a good-natured disagreement.)