Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My sister’s stepdaughter: I am very attracted to my sister’s stepdaughter. She is 20 years younger than I am but that doesn’t really bother me. What do I do about it? Should I just forget about it? I really can’t stop thinking about her.
A: Yes, you should forget about it. If you cannot forget about it, you can at least choose not to say anything; just because the family relationship and the 20-year age difference don’t bother you doesn’t mean they’re suddenly immaterial. It is possible to be very attracted to someone and not to hit on them. Don’t hit on her. See a therapist or start taking a lot of long walks or decide not to spend alone time with her or meditate on how much you’d miss your sister if you burned that particular bridge or read through the collected works of George Eliot or all of the above. But you are perfectly capable of not hitting on your sister’s stepdaughter. Don’t hit on your sister’s stepdaughter.
Q. Bisexual dad: My twin brother and I have always been close to our wonderful dad. He left our mom to protect us when he discovered her abusive behavior when we were kids, and in retrospect, I can see that he pretty much poured his whole life into raising us as a single dad. We left for college last year, and he has been developing a social life again. And a dating life. We live away from home in the apartment he bought us, and while he was visiting last month, he sat us down to say he needed to tell us some things. He came out to us as bi and told us he had a boyfriend of several months, with whom things are pretty serious. We did not react well. We both responded incredulously, and I found myself weirdly angry at the news. My brother is gay (our dad has always been incredibly supportive of him, no question), but he said some several extremely homophobic things, while I said some awful biphobic comments as well.
Our dad responded minimally when we made a series of insulting questions and comments: “You haven’t told people, have you?” “What will you do if a guy you’re dating beats you up? It was bad enough with Mom!” “I can’t hold the words dad and boyfriend in the same sentence, please just call him your partner!” All of these are things I said that keep me up at night. He eventually said he was sorry for upsetting us, and that he had to go. He left before we could get ourselves together, obviously very upset. My brother’s boyfriend, who had been in the next room, at this point came in and yelled at us for about an hour. He couldn’t believe how we’d responded and almost broke up with my brother in front of me for some of the homophobic things he’d said. (They’ve worked through it now.)
I am ashamed of what I said—I am a straight woman, but I’ve never had a problem with my awesome brother or any of my LGBT friends, and I’ve always tried to be a good ally. My brother and I have talked about it a lot and realized how much biphobic and homophobic thinking we have obviously internalized without knowing it, and we are trying to consciously unpick the terrible way we responded. We have since tried getting in touch with our dad to apologize, but he has become uncharacteristically cold with us. He thanked us for apologizing but cut the conversation short. Each time we’ve phoned, he’s gone quiet then changed the topic, becoming cheerful and warm as long as we talk about anything else. We don’t know what to do. You’re good at scripts and apologies—can you recommend how we should move forward? We adore our dad and feel like we’ve let him down terribly.
A: This letter was so tough to read. I feel so deeply how much you wish you could take back the things you said, and how much you want to support your dad. I wish I could help you go back in time. It’s clear that you love your dad and that you’re truly sorry for hurting him. But self-awareness and contrition are only part of the equation—time will need to be part of it too. What your dad is doing right now, by changing the subject to lighter things when you try to apologize again, is drawing a veil around the more vulnerable and intimate parts of his life, because those are the parts of his life that you’ve most recently threatened. He needs that boundary, just like he needs time to heal and decide when or whether he’s ready to have a follow-up conversation with you.
That doesn’t mean you have to just stew in your guilt and do nothing right now, though. I think it would be an excellent idea for you and your brother to attend some PFLAG meetings, either together or separately. You both know just how easy it is to walk around carrying pretty serious homophobic and biphobic assumptions about other people even if you consider yourself totally gay-friendly—it’s not something that’s automatically cured just by knowing or loving gay people (or even being gay oneself). Think of this not as something you can do to “speed up” your father’s forgiveness, but as something you want to do, now that you’ve realized there’s a part of yourself that really wants to punish and control your father for being bisexual. After you’ve spent some time in PFLAG meetings, you might find some volunteer opportunities at your local LGBT center—again, not to score brownie points with gay people, but as part of the ongoing work of wanting to offer support where you’ve previously withheld it. I think it’s appropriate to discuss the ways you’ve hurt your father in those PFLAG meetings, but not during any volunteer opportunities you might pick up; be judicious about when and how you disclose that information, bearing in mind that it might compound the pain of other gay/bi/queer people who’ve already experienced estrangement from their families. You might also consider apologizing to your brother’s boyfriend again yourself. You say that the two of them have already moved past it, but I don’t think it would hurt for you to tell him some of what you told me, to offer him your sincere apologies, and to see if there’s anything still unresolved for him that you can talk about. I’d also recommend seeing a therapist to unpack some of these complex issues, especially because you mention there’s some background trauma from your abusive mother, and you’re having a hard time thinking of your father as an individual human being with his own life, not just as “your father.”
When it comes to your relationship with him, I think the best thing you can offer right now is this (possibly in writing, if you’re worried about forcing him into an in-the-moment conversation he’s made it clear he’s not interested in right now): “Dad, I love you so much, and I’m so sorry I responded to your coming-out in such a cruel and homophobic way. You tried to share something important and intimate with me, and in response I let you down, I hurt you, and I used the memory of Mom’s abuse against you. I understand that you need time right now, and I won’t try to initiate another conversation about this again. I’ll let you take the lead when and if you want to talk about how I hurt you and what I can do to try to make it right. Right now I’m [seeing a therapist, going to PFLAG meetings, etc.] to work on this, and I’m thinking of you often. I can’t take back the hurtful things I said or undo the pain I caused you, but I can make sure I never treat you or anyone else the same way again, and I’m committed to that.” Beyond that, grant your father the space and time he needs to heal. He deserves it. Good luck.
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Q. Handshake culture? I am a queer cis woman in my 30s, and for over a year, I’ve been working at a company with a large and diverse staff. This company is progressive on many fronts, but lately I’ve been noticing a weird facet of our culture. Several of our male managers routinely greet our male colleagues with hearty man-to-man handshakes, something they never initiate with women. (For what it’s worth, there are women who are managers, but they do not initiate handshake greetings with anyone.) I’ve begun testing the waters by occasionally initiating this greeting handshake myself, but it is usually met with surprise and some awkwardness. Recently, when I offered my hand to a manager for a handshake, he looked down at my hand, looked back at my face, and held his hand up for a high-five instead. What is the deal with this? It sounds like a small thing, but it genuinely feels like I’m being denied membership in some exclusive boys’ club, or at least being treated differently and more distantly because I’m a woman. The handshake seems to signify a mutual goodwill and a level of cordial intimacy in which I would like to participate. I realize I sound a bit like an extraterrestrial observing human culture, but I’m very curious about whether this “handshake culture” is normal and if there’s anything I can do to push back against it. Am I overthinking this?
A: No, it is weird. It strikes me as a little odd that they’re repeatedly shaking the hands of male colleagues they already know, since I tend to think of a handshake as a one-time-only greeting, rather than a way to say “hello” to someone you see often. (I’m trying to imagine a “good-morning” handshake with the people I see every day, and it strikes me as odd.) But if it’s common in your office to shake hands more than once, then it strikes me as reasonable that it should be offered to everyone regardless of gender. If you normally have a good relationship with your boss, I’d bring it up the next time you two meet up one-on-one: “I noticed you seemed uncomfortable shaking hands yesterday; I brought it up because I’ve seen you and X and Y managers doing it with male members of their team and I’d like to participate.”
Q. No more: My husband has informed me he will not be having any more children. He wants to get a vasectomy and “enjoy our life as it is.” I agree the past four years since the birth of our daughter have been rough. I got seriously ill during my pregnancy, our daughter spent time in ICU as an infant, and my husband got a second job so we wouldn’t lose the house. I think our daughter is worth it. I told him so and he told me I am more concerned about being a mom than a wife. He will sign the divorce papers if I “want” them but his plans are not going to change. I put my head on the table and cried. He told me he loved me. He loved our daughter. He just couldn’t do everything a second time. He tried to hug me and I threw him off and went to sleep in our daughter’s room. Neither of us brought up the subject again. I am 37. Even if I get a divorce, I will have to get a job, struggle as a single mom, and let romantic lightning strike in the next few years. I always wanted more kids than him. I just didn’t think he would want to stop at one! Help.
A: It sounds like you found this out very recently and haven’t been able to talk through your thoughts and fears with anyone since then. You need—and deserve!—more support than just sleeping alone in your daughter’s room and feeling alienated from your husband. Would he be willing to attend couples counseling with you? I think you’d both find it useful, not with the aim of changing one another’s mind, but with the aim of figuring out when and how you two first started to hide your feelings from one another, such that your husband was only willing to have this conversation with you once he had already come to a decision. Yes, it’s true that you have only a handful of options here: stay married and come to terms with your husband’s decision, separate and try to meet someone else, or separate and try to become a single parent. But while this is a time-sensitive issue, you’re not being asked to make a decision in the next 24 hours, and you have the right to take the time to feel your feelings, clarify your values, and figure out whether you two can possibly reconnect. Good luck.
Q. Sex: My boyfriend and I have been together for three years. Our sex life is spectacular. The only issue is that his particular kink (light bondage) is something that I want to try with him. The problem is, that request dives right now his childhood trauma. His drug-addicted mother would tie him up like a disobedient dog and leave him like that for hours without food or water. He got rescued and adopted by his wonderful parents when he was 8, but no amount of time is going to make that horrible memory magically go away. He still sees a therapist from time to time, but I feel selfish to want this because of what he went through. I haven’t brought it up yet and I don’t know if I should. Should I just give up this desire?
A: I’m a little bit confused by how you’ve written this question—you say that light bondage is his kink but that you want to try it with him and you haven’t brought the subject up yet. Either there’s a typo and this is your kink, or he’s told you once offhand that this interests him and you haven’t been able to bring yourself to let him know that you’re into it too. If it’s the latter—you’re both interested in the idea, he doesn’t yet know that you’re game, and you’re concerned about how this might intersect with his trauma—then I think the next step is to talk about it together a lot. You might schedule a few appointments with a couples counselor who specializes in talking about kink and trauma. You’d certainly want to talk a lot about your limits, aftercare, ways you can establish trust and obvious opt-out moments as you explore this, the safest and easiest type of restraints to slip out of at first, etc. But if your concern is that there’s something wrong about taking your boyfriend at his word that this interests him, your boyfriend wouldn’t be the first person interested in revisiting a particular site of trauma years later in a carefully controlled, stage-y sort of way with a partner they respect, trust, and feel safe with.
Q. If and when to explain your unfortunate last name to your children? I have two lovely and clever kids, ages 8 and 10, who are a bit sensitive. They don’t know it yet, but they have a rather unfortunate surname. Centuries ago, the context of the name used to make perfect sense, but today it most commonly refers to a rather distressful affliction. I am sure they will be teased for it soon enough, and I am wrestling with the ramifications of whether to try to explain this to them now to prepare them, or to leave them blissfully unaware as long as possible, just as I was when I was a child, until ridicule strikes a few years later.
A: If you think the ridicule is pretty unavoidable, I think it’s better for you to bring it up with your kids now, especially since you describe them both as a bit sensitive. It’ll be easier hearing it from a patient, loving parent than a rude classmate. Plus you can spend a little time talking about what, if anything, they might want to say in response to such teasing.
Q. In someone else’s closet: My partner and I have been together for a year. We have similar goals and personalities that mesh well, our communication is great (yay, therapy!), and we are generally very happy. I am a cis woman, and my partner is gender-fluid but generally uses she/her pronouns around me and my social circle. She is not out at all to her family, who are extremely conservative and religious. For all they know, my partner is a straight conservative Catholic cis guy, none of which is the case.
My partner and I have joked that I am her family’s worst nightmare. By my partner’s record, they are very vain, homophobic, and judgmental; I am a fat, heavily tattooed, liberal, divorced queer woman who is not Christian. Despite this, she feels very close to her family and says she knows that she will be disowned if she comes out to them. My partner says she wants to protect me from their judgment and is working on getting them used to me before we meet. She says she feels that our relationship is inherently entwined in her queer identity and that she will need to come out at the same time. But Prudence, it has been a year. I’m not asking for my partner to come out or put herself in danger, but I feel hurt by not being allowed to meet her family. It’s even gone so far that my partner has asked me to change my social media avatars and permissions so that her “super snoop” mother won’t find and be offended by what I post. Her former partners have all met her family. How do I navigate this situation when it seems like our relationship won’t progress until we address her family’s shitty attitudes about both of us? This hurts, and I’m tired of seeing my partner agonizing over never being able to come out to them and of feeling like the shameful secret girlfriend.
A: Let’s remove from the equation everyone’s intentions (best or otherwise) and simply look at what’s happened over the past year: Your partner has told you she believes she will be disowned when she comes out to her family, has decided not to introduce you to her family until she comes out, has asked you to minimize your online presence in order to accommodate her mother’s lack of boundaries, and has given you nothing in the way of a timetable about when you might meet her family. I’m hearing a lot about the decisions she’s made and the priorities she’s honoring, and not a lot about you. Would you still be happy in this relationship if another year went by and you hadn’t met anyone in her family? How about if your girlfriend asked you to delete your social media profiles altogether? What if her family doesn’t disown her but does bring a lot of pressure on her to conform—do you trust that your girlfriend would ever stand up to her “super snoop” mother, or do you think it’s likelier that she’d ask you to bend over backward in order to accommodate her family? You don’t have to demonize your girlfriend in order to figure out what you need in a relationship; you can both appreciate the difficulties of the situation she’s in and determine whether or not you two have compatible long-term goals.
Q. Acne and momma drama: I am 21 and on Isotretinoin (aka Accutane, the scary depression drug) for my terrible cystic acne. I am currently going through the nasty “purge” phase and am facing severe depression over my physical appearance. Even though I am in college, I have tried to connect to my single mom by living at home this summer, but I feel as though she has abandoned me. To begin, every time that I express my self-hatred and fears (scars, liver damage, etc.) she flies into a rage that includes yelling, cursing, name-calling, and even throwing things at me like trash or books. When I have sadness spells, she screams at me to stop being an ungrateful “moron” or “narcissist” and even mocks the sounds of my crying by using a demented baby voice. She has also recommended that I stop seeing a therapist and simply “move on” with my life as soon as possible by “getting the fuck away” from her. Lastly, when I hit a low point this month and said that I would rather end my life than continue living on meds, she responded by screaming, “Who cares? Get over it!” Given that we are best friends and used to be just like the Gilmore Girls, I am trying understand my mom’s sudden behavior change that frankly has made me feel resented and unloved. I am also seeking your advice on how to effectively communicate with her about my mental health status because I do love her and truly want her support and guidance. Or should I just give up? Am I being too naïve? Where is the best place to turn to with dark thoughts when you aren’t close with extended family, don’t want to burden friends, and have a love-hate relationship with your therapist?
A: In the immediate short term, please do “burden” your friends by telling them at least a little bit about what you’re going through right now, because you’re under an unimaginable amount of stress and depression on top of dealing with a new medication that can induce suicidal thoughts. I don’t know if your mother is on a new medication herself, but this sudden change in personality sounds absolutely bewildering and terrifying, and it sounds like there might be an underlying medical cause. You say you’re not close with your extended family, but now might be the right time to contact any relative you have even a distantly polite relationship with to express your concerns about your mother’s sudden descent into violence and cruelty, because it sounds like she needs help immediately.
That said, I don’t think that you, as the immediate recipient of her abuse and cruelty, can make yourself responsible for getting her that help. Your most pressing responsibility right now is toward yourself and staying alive. It’s not “giving up” on your mother to refuse to be abused by her. If you take a few big steps back from your relationship with her after encouraging her to seek help, that’s not abandoning or condemning her—that’s triage. I wish you every bit of luck imaginable right now. You say you’re at college, so I hope you can also access your school’s on-campus counseling services, because you deserve all the help you can get. It’s not a burden to others to ask for help when you need it.
Q. Re: Bisexual dad: Are these two really prejudiced? Or do they have some deep feelings that expressed a prejudice? It sounds to me like these two are used to being a tight unit with a dad who has cared for them all their lives, and that on a subconscious level they might regard any person that Dad dates seriously as an interloper.
A: Yes, these two are really prejudiced. That doesn’t mean they are irredeemable, that they can’t act differently in the future, that they don’t love their dad, or even that the brother isn’t gay himself. But when someone comes out as bisexual, saying “Won’t you be humiliated if a man abuses you? Remember how bad it was when a woman abused you?” is, in fact, prejudiced. Moreover, the letter writer herself openly acknowledges that what she said was prejudiced: “I came out with some awful biphobic comments as well. I am ashamed of what I said.” You are bending over backward to ignore reality. Don’t.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.
From How to Do It
Q. My partner can’t stand the way I “taste”: In the past six months, I’ve recently reconnected with a guy I knew in college. We’re not dating per se because we live a few states apart, but we talk every night and we’ve met up twice now for long weekends to spend time together. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s all great. But sexually? Not great. It’s hard to get me wet unless my partner goes down on me. But he doesn’t like my taste! Which is a him-problem—I’ve had plenty of partners who have enthusiastically eaten me out, so I know it’s not me. But I can’t help but feel terrible about it? Because when he doesn’t go down on me I don’t get turned on, so then I’m dry, and penetrative sex is uncomfortable. Eventually it gets good and I get turned on, but because of how it all starts, I’m seriously sore the next time we try to have another round.
The last time we were together we tried again in the shower, he couldn’t do it, and I started bawling. It just made me feel so frustrated and unwanted. Which is not how I like my sex to go! I don’t know what to do. We’re very open and talk to each other about it all, and I really like this guy in every other way, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for me. But I want to have great sex with him, not work-up-to-decent sex. Should I be straight eating pineapples in the weeks leading up to his visits? Why is my body chemistry not matching up with his? I don’t want him to force himself to go down on me, but I also don’t want to be too dry for sex when we both really want to have it and only have a limited amount of time. Read what Stoya had to say.
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