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 get to chatting.
Q. Fake service animal: My sister is engaged to a lovely woman. They are wild about each other and very happy. However, her fiancée refuses to leave her dog at home when going out to restaurants, bars, etc., and has ordered a “service animal” tag online. The dog is not a service animal. I am so irked at her for faking a medical need so that she can bring her dog everywhere—especially since she’s a doctor! Is there any way to bring this up, or should I roll my eyes only in the privacy of my own home?
A: When it comes to the privacy of your own home, it’s fine to tell your soon-to-be sister-in-law to leave the dog behind before coming over for a visit, especially because she’s apparently let you in on the secret that she doesn’t actually need a service dog. The same goes for restaurants if the two of them ask you to join them: “I’d be happy to join if you can leave the dog behind. I find trying to eat with an animal at the table really distracting.” I’d probably leave it there, just in the interest of maintaining a pleasant dynamic, unless she’s really insistent or the dog is badly behaved. In that case, you might say that if she were ever asked by a server about her dog you wouldn’t be comfortable lying on her behalf, and would not go along with any lies about the dog having service training of any kind. That’s likely to cause conflict—she’s already demonstrated she’s a little unreasonable when it comes to her dog—but if she’s otherwise a lovely woman and you’re confident you can maintain your composure and speak respectfully while disagreeing with her, I don’t think you have to keep your mouth shut.
Q. Am I a grandma? While I didn’t raise my stepdaughter from birth, I have been her stepmother since she was 17. I always thought we had a good relationship up until now. She is 27, married, and expecting her first child. Just like when her brother had his son, I thought I was going to be Grandma to my husband’s Grandpa. At the baby shower, I was talking to her mother-in-law about how excited I was to be a grandma a second time. She looked down her nose at me and lectured me that she was going to be the only grandma this baby knows since my stepdaughter’s “real” mother died when she was young. A second wife needs to learn her place. Everyone just stopped talking and stared. I looked to my stepdaughter to say something. She just stayed silent. I had tears in my eyes and I excused myself.
My daughter-in-law (the wife of my stepson) came out with me in a fury and I begged her not to make a scene. My husband was extremely angry over this and even more when the apology came. Apparently, to be “fair,” the in-laws are insisting that I not be called a grandma to prevent a war between the mother-in-law and the new stepmother. What any of that has to do with me I do not understand. My family is completely outraged on my behalf. My husband is ready to read his daughter the Riot Act and my stepson has called his brother-in-law a complete coward. If this came from my stepdaughter herself, it would hurt, but I could deal with it. I do love my stepdaughter dearly. I do not understand how her husband’s mother gets to dictate my relationship to my stepdaughter or her child. I left messages asking my stepdaughter to talk to me and they have not been returned. I have never had this happen before. How do I move forward here without fracturing my family?
A: What a baffling, cruel thing for your stepdaughter’s mother-in-law to say, and how dispiriting that the rest of her family is prepared to rally around her as she dictates who deserves the name “Grandma.” I’m so sorry that your stepdaughter avoided your eyes in that moment and is avoiding your calls now. I imagine she may have a fraught relationship with her mother-in-law, but her behavior right now is cowardly and unloving. I can understand why your husband and your stepson are outraged, and while I think you can encourage them to temper their anger with patient speech, I don’t think you should feel responsible for any family fracturing or arguments that may come as a result of this situation. You did nothing wrong; you haven’t sought to escalate any disagreement; you haven’t overstepped any boundaries or insulted anyone.
I wish I could give you more direction in terms of what to do next, but I think most of the action here has to come from your stepdaughter. You’ve left her a few messages, and she’s decided not to return any of them. I think the best move is to let her know that you’ll be available when and if she’s ready to talk, to try to be as patient as you can without letting her talk you into giving up the title of “Grandma,” to ask your husband and stepson for emotional and practical support, and not to give in to your in-laws’ outrageous demands.
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Q. My otherwise perfect boyfriend: I have been dating a wonderful man for just over nine months. He is smart, funny, and deeply charming, he pulls his weight domestically, and he’s ridiculously attractive. On a normal day, I see a great future for the two of us. However, every once in a while he will do something that I just can’t get past. We’ll be having a normal conversation, then suddenly he’ll pretend to be mad at me or pretend that I am mad at him and he is responding accordingly.
It is bewildering and comes out of nowhere. Growing up, my father was prone to out-of-the-blue rages, so my first reaction is terror, followed quickly by intense anger once I realize what he’s doing. I’ve explained that I find this behavior confusing and very upsetting, and he apologizes at those times, but it keeps happening. He seems shocked when I say that he should cut it out, because he knows that neither of us was really angry to start with.
I’m starting to feel that he actually is mad at me but doesn’t know how to express it properly, that he enjoys upsetting me in this way, or that he just doesn’t care enough to change his behavior. He’s not an excellent communicator, and I tend to avoid conflict in relationships, so I’m not sure how to address this other than the way I already have. I don’t want to leave him, but this might be too much for me, and I’d rather not get any deeper into this relationship if I can’t make him see my side of things. What should I do?
A: Leave him, please. You’re nine months into this relationship and he’s already terrorizing you for fun, despite knowing exactly how much it bothers you. He’s apologized multiple times—and then he’s gone back to doing the exact same thing, while simultaneously pretending to be “shocked” when you get upset again, as if he doesn’t remember perfectly well what happened the last time. This is arbitrary, senseless, and cruel, and it’s just the beginning. It’s the biggest red flag imaginable, and you deserve someone who would never do this to you.
Q. Handshakes not hugs, please: My friends are all huggers. They often hug to say hello, and they always hug to say goodbye. I have agreed to hug them, because clearly they prefer it. But I don’t! I prefer to shake hands. (I lived in France for a while, where that’s much more normal.) Question is: How do I transition my friends-who-are-used-to-hugging to friends-who-understand-me-and-shake-my-hand instead? I’m looking for ways to phrase the request as well as what environments to express it in (in person, over social media, etc.). I still like my friends plenty, but I would like to find a way to communicate this more clearly. (And yes, I’ve seen Seinfeld’s “The Kiss Hello” many times!)
A: I think this is a conversation best conducted in person, assuming all of your friends are generally trustworthy and well-meaning people who won’t take “I don’t like hugging” as a dare to start trying to test that statement with a lot of extra hugs. But you don’t need much in the way of a script, I don’t think, unless you’re worried they’ll think it’s odd you haven’t mentioned it before: “I realize it may sound odd coming after so many years of knowing each other, but I really don’t like to hug, even with my closest friends. It’d make me feel more comfortable if we could shake hands instead—would you be willing to switch?” You can certainly substitute “I’m going to stop hugging, and I just wanted to make sure you know it doesn’t mean I’m upset or unhappy to see you” for “Would you be willing to switch?” if that strikes you as unnecessarily tentative. (I haven’t seen Seinfeld’s “The Kiss Hello,” but I’ll take your word for it that it wasn’t helpful for your situation. Good luck! It’s a perfectly reasonable request!)
Q. Not a free accountant: My mom died a few years ago and left substantial assets (she was an heiress of sorts) to my father, with the understanding that whatever was left over after he passed would be willed to my two siblings and me, which sat just fine with all of us. As I work in wealth management, my dad gave me access to the portfolio and accounts, to keep an eye on them and make sure that everything was performing at its best. Last year, my father remarried to a woman with college-age children. I like them just fine but haven’t made a point of getting home to spend time with them much. My father revealed to me a few months ago that he was changing his will to leave the huge majority of the assets to his wife and her family. My siblings and I are all quite comfortable on our own, and I frankly expected this type of action eventually. I thought it went without saying that I would no longer take time out of my schedule to care for funds that I no longer have a stake in, but my dad asked me at lunch, with most of our families in attendance, how a certain account was doing, and I responded that I hadn’t looked at his portfolio since he’d disinherited my siblings and me. Everyone got noticeably quiet and awkward, and I changed the subject. My father called me later to say that his wife and stepkids were upset that I had spoken “hostilely” about money, which struck me as off, but I do have Asperger’s, so I’ve missed cues before. I clarified that I wasn’t really bothered by the disinheritance, but I would continue to call the situation as I saw it. He’s irate that I told him to hire outside help to manage his money. Prudie, I am open to the possibility that I am in the wrong. Please advise.
A: Your decision not to continue managing your father’s money after he rewrote his will is a perfectly reasonable one, but rather than assuming that this went without saying, you absolutely should have said something. That awkward scene at lunch would have been completely avoidable had you just told your father at the time: “That makes sense. It’s your money and you have every right to do this. Since I’m no longer managing these funds on my own behalf, you’ll need to find a new manager. I’ll be happy to send over any paperwork or account files you need to make the transfer.”
That said, if your father’s “irate” that you’re no longer willing to do this job for free, he’s being unreasonable, and you certainly don’t have to apologize for it. At most, I think, you can tell him you’re sorry for not being clear with him sooner and making sure you two could have that conversation in private. But that’s all you need to apologize for, and if he continues to push you on this, you have every right to push back—it’s a totally unreasonable request.
Q. I might be a terrible friend? I’ve been friends with “Lisa” for almost 10 years. We met while working at the same bar in college. We were very close for the five years we spent living in the same city, and now keep in touch on a semi-regular basis. Lisa is without a doubt an incredible friend in every way. She checks in at the perfect frequency: every few months when nothing is going on, and somehow at exactly the perfect time when I’m going through something difficult. She sends flowers for career milestones and tragedies as well as video chats on my birthday, and she flies into my city for a quick visit whenever she visits her nearby hometown. She is funny, obviously thoughtful, and unendingly pleasant. When we hang out in person we pick up right where we left off and have an easygoing, fun rapport. My parents and partner adore her. She’s a perfect houseguest, always leaving a made-up bed, a thank-you note, and some kind of token of appreciation.
The problem is me! Despite my best efforts, Lisa does not occupy much space in my mind. I suppose it may be because she lives across the country, but I just don’t think about her that often. It’s been five years of long-distance friendship and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not sent her flowers, called on her birthday, nor visited her. She seems unbothered by this one-sidedness, but I have a creeping guilt about it that weighs on me yet somehow prevents me from taking action. Is this OK? If she doesn’t protest, can we continue like this? I just can’t put my finger on it, but despite my best efforts I cannot seem to treat her with reciprocal kindness—the same kindness I might show to a local friend who is more on my radar. What do I do? Where do I start?
A: You don’t have to fly out to visit someone just because they visit you, that’s true, and lots of people have good friends they don’t necessarily send flowers to. But I don’t think you need to make keeping up with Lisa your standard for treating her thoughtfully. You don’t have to start remembering every birthday, sending gifts when she gets a promotion, planning a visit and shopping for a hostess gift in advance, and devoting a ton of time and energy toward fêting her in order to treat her with kindness. You could give her a call today and chat for five or 10 minutes and ask her how she’s doing; if she doesn’t pick up, you could leave her a message about how much you appreciate her. I’m not surprised you feel stricken at the prospect of treating her with reciprocal thoughtfulness, because she sounds pretty Type A when it comes to being a houseguest or a long-distance friend. But that’s not the standard you need to hold yourself to. You might set a calendar alert on your phone for every couple of months so you remember to give her a call. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally automating friendship initiation. I don’t think you’re at risk of losing Lisa’s friendship unless you love-bomb her in the next couple of days, so let yourself off the hook a little bit. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here, and don’t let her extreme conscientiousness keep you from doing a little bit more to let her know you care about her.
Q. Surgeon warning: I am writing about an ethical dilemma I recently had. A Facebook acquaintance posted that they were having surgery the following day. I can best describe this as routine surgery for a potentially life-threatening condition if left unchecked. I messaged her to offer my best wishes and asked some questions about the surgery. In doing so, I learned that the surgeon who would be doing the procedure is the same surgeon who operated on a friend of mine—a friend who had a rocky recovery with a lot of complications. I was not a fan of how that surgeon handled the issues. By and large, this surgeon is very well regarded. I think what happened to my friend truly was an anomaly. When my Facebook acquaintance asked questions about the surgeon, I demurred and offered some neutral statements, not mentioning anything about the negative experience my good friend had. This person underwent her procedure and by all accounts had a smooth course and is doing well.
What was my ethical obligation here? Was I under any kind of duty to report the complications and (in my opinion) substandard care my friend received , knowing that this question was being asked less than 24 hours before the major procedure? Should I have revealed what was apparently an anomaly, perhaps thereby provoking unnecessary anxiety? To complicate things further, I too am in the medical field, and I work at the same hospital as the surgeon in question. Speaking out negatively about him could have had professional consequences, had it gotten back to him. I’m curious what you think about this situation.
A: I don’t think you had information that meant you could reasonably believe your acquaintance’s life or health was in danger—but I do think you were on shaky ground when you were asked a direct follow-up question and demurred. Especially since you weren’t about to claim malpractice, I think it would have been reasonable to say, “I think this surgeon is rightly well regarded, but when it came to my friend’s follow-up care, I think he should have been more vigilant about watching for X and Y complications. Be sure to ask about them during your post-op visits.” You wouldn’t have encouraged her to cancel her surgery, but giving her a little information about how to better advocate for her post-operative care, just in case the doctor missed something again, would have been useful for her. Obviously everything worked out, and I don’t think you put your friend in terrible danger, but I think you could have answered her questions more honestly (over the phone if you didn’t want to say those things on her Facebook wall).
Q. Re: I might be a terrible friend? Your smartphone has a calendar, which has a feature that allows you to set recurring reminders. Use it. (And FYI, that is likely what Lisa is doing as well.)
A: Right! You don’t have to wait until you’re swept over with a mood of pure generosity—those moods almost never strike, unfortunately. You can just set an achievable three or four reminders to call over the next six months and see how that goes.
Q. Re: Am I a grandma? While I think the stepmother is in the right and is admirable for wanting to be a loving presence in the life of her grandchildren, her stepdaughter may also be struggling with the loss of her own mother right now, even if it happened long ago. Pregnancy and new motherhood is a time when a young woman is going to feel the sting of the loss of her mother especially sharply. In addition to dealing with a difficult mother-in-law, the stepdaughter may want to hold space for her own mother, perhaps by having her stepmother use a name other than “grandma” with the new baby. I hope that the stepmother can extend a lot of empathy for the difficult position her stepdaughter is in, even if the stepdaughter is in the wrong not to stand up for her.
A: I do think there’s value to considering that—thank you. I still think the way the mother-in-law brought this up was unbelievably, unnecessarily cruel and humiliating, and that she owes the letter writer a heartfelt apology. But it would make sense if the stepdaughter has complicated feelings about her own mother’s memory as she prepares to become a parent herself. Maybe giving her a little time to cool down before reaching out again would help, and making it clear that what hurt you was how this other woman spoke to you, rather than the idea of your stepdaughter wanting to find ways to acknowledge her own mother right now.
Q. Re: I might be a terrible friend? “But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here, and don’t let her extreme conscientiousness keep you from doing a little bit more to let her know you care about her.” This is gold. I am a Lisa. I have all sorts of friends with different ways of giving back! Some I don’t really speak to, but whom I know would be there in a flash if I needed them. Some are a tonic when I’m down. Some are easygoing if I want to stay with them and catch up … ahem! I look for friends who speak kindly but also directly. (I can’t be having passive aggressive and manipulation in my life.) I look for friends I can count on in a pinch. I look for being able to pick up where we left off. I don’t need someone to remember birthdays. That’s something I love to do—that comes easily to me. There are so many other ways I’m sure your friendship counts.
A: I’m glad this was helpful to you. It’s good for the letter writer to remind herself that she doesn’t have to be an exact copy of Lisa, just a slightly more thoughtful version of herself.
Q. My husband got my sister pregnant: When my ex and I were married, we had trouble conceiving and years of heartache. I thought our marriage was strong enough to survive this, then I discovered he was having an affair with my sister. We had a huge, traumatic confrontation and my then-husband and I decided to move and make a fresh start. A few weeks after we moved, my sister gave the news that—surprise!—she was pregnant. My ex then divorced me to start a family with her. Because I’d just started a new job and had a mortgage, it was financially impossible for me to leave. I stayed in the new city by myself and eventually made friends and settled there. My parents were also very hurt and angry, but when the baby came they mellowed and reconciled. My niece is now 5 and I have never met her. We take turns attending family functions because I can’t bear to be in the same room as them. Recently my parents gently asked if I would consider having a Christmas dinner with my sister. I told them I would think about it and I really did. I took a deep breath and went on my sister’s Facebook page for the first time. There, I saw hundreds of happy pictures of them as a family. My ex-husband kissing her after she’d just given birth, photos of the happy first birthday party, family trips, etc. She was tagged in a status update from my ex: “Celebrating another amazing anniversary with my beautiful wife, thank you for giving me so much happiness and our perfect daughter.” I literally vomited after reading that. After five years, is it time for me to get over it and try to force myself to at least tolerate their company? Read what Prudie had to say.
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