Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Plantation wedding: Part of my friend’s wedding is taking place on a former plantation in the South. Members of my family were slaves on a plantation not that many generations ago, and the thought of attending the wedding of a white couple there is making me uncomfortable. I love my friend and her fiancée, and I don’t believe there’s any actively bad intent on their part, except maybe thoughtlessness. I don’t want to cause her any pain or make it seem like I’m putting her down, but I’d prefer not to attend the event that’s taking place there. I could still attend all of the other wedding events. What are your thoughts on this? I know that weddings in these types of venues are common, so I’m sure my discomfort is too. Is there a way to bow out of the event with kindness to the couple?
A: You do not have to go—it makes perfect sense that you would not want to. And you do not have to worry about whether they have “actively bad intent,” or worry about whether or not having a wedding on a slave plantation is common. Just because something is commonplace does not make it good, or thoughtful, or loving, or sensible. It would be perfectly kind and polite to say, “I’m not comfortable attending a wedding on a slave plantation, so I won’t be able to attend.” If they feel bad in that moment, that is a good thing. Unless your friend is the most ill-informed woman in America, she’s aware that plantations existed because of and in order to perpetuate slavery. They should feel bad about their choice, and that bad feeling should produce a desire to change, to attempt to set things right, and to go forth and sin no more.
Q. Sexist memes: I am a male freshman in a male-dominated tech program. I was recently invited to the private student-run Discord chat for the entire program, where useful resources are shared: room changes, textbooks etc. There is also a thread where people post memes they find amusing. Unfortunately, many of the memes that have been posted are objectifying to blatantly misogynistic, and I am worried that the memes will ostracize my female peers or at the very least make them uncomfortable. As I see it I have four options: 1) Say something on the group chat and risk being blocked from accessing a valuable tool, while achieving nothing other than virtue signaling. 2) call out someone publicly after they post something especially egregious. This approach will also likely result in my ban and ostracism; however, it at least gives me a chance to stand my ground 3) Invite female peers to the group while giving them a personal heads-up. 4) Tattling to the college—I have no idea what would result from this action and I would like to strongly avoid having HR interfere in an otherwise functional tool and community. What should I do?
A: I’m not sure why “virtue signaling” would be a bad thing in this situation; surely signaling that you find this practice despicable and that you prefer to treat people kindly and with respect is a good thing, yes? Calling what is evil, evil, and what is good, good, is a worthwhile act in and of itself, even if it doesn’t result in an immediate change of heart in all of one’s fellows. And how many room changes and textbook alerts do you really need in order to stay current in your program? Surely there aren’t so many daily room changes that you run the risk of falling behind in your schoolwork should you exit this group chat. Nor do I think your idea of inviting women into this group so they can object to this behavior for you is a good one.
You say this is “the” student-run chat for the program; if it has any formal association with the college itself, I think you’re well within your rights to pass this along (yes, to tattle). This likely contributes to the male domination of your program, if there’s a formal student resource that women are excluded from so that male students can mock and belittle them. Even if it isn’t, and you decide not to say anything to faculty or administration, you should speak up. Not merely to “say something,” which sounds indifferent and mealy-mouthed, but to state honestly and with spirit your objections to what they’re doing as well as your commitment to acting differently. I strongly disagree with your assessment that this is a functional community. I think the fact that very few women make it into this program has an immediate and obvious connection to the poisonous, misogynist little chats that spring up like toadstools between your male peers.
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Q. Secret soulmate: I’ve been married for 10 years to a kind, honest, and faithful man. He is older and more conservative, but I never hid the fact that I identify as bisexual. He never expressed a problem with it, but it’s not something we talk about. I feel thankful to have a good husband and father to our children. Several years ago, I began chatting with a woman in an online forum for our shared hobby. “Alison” and I started talking about our children, and then books, films, and politics. I was stunned by how much we had in common. Soon, we were chatting every night. It was like I found the best friend I’d always been looking for.
I don’t know if it’s easier to talk to a stranger, but soon I found myself opening up about all kinds of things, from childhood traumas to sex and marriage. She seemed to understand me implicitly. I’ve always felt slightly alien, like I was playing myself in a movie of my life, but suddenly I felt known and supported for being the authentic me. When we finally met in person, I realized that I was deeply attracted to her physically. She lives several towns away, so we don’t see each other often, but we meet up from time to time and even our husbands have become friendly. We send each other’s children gifts on birthdays and holidays. I cherish our friendship, and I thought I would just have to keep my feelings to myself for the rest of our lives. Recently, on one of our “girls’ night” outings, she confessed she had feelings for me and we ended up kissing. I realized I had been kidding myself all along. I am deeply in love with this woman. I have never been particularly romantic. I would have laughed at the notion of a soulmate even a year ago. But I truly believe we were made for each other.
I would happily spend the rest of my life with her, but I don’t see how that’s possible. We both have families we don’t want to hurt. My parents split when I was young, and I don’t want to subject my children to that trauma. I would never ask her to leave her family for me, either. There are too many people and children who could be destroyed by this. I never set out to have an affair. I found out accidentally as a child that my mother was having an affair, and I swore I would never do that. My husband doesn’t deserve my dishonesty, either, but if I told him the truth, I think he would be shattered. Alison and I have resolved to remain in our marriages and continue our affair in secret. I feel ashamed for the secrecy, but I can’t cut her out of my life. If I had met her before my husband, I absolutely would have married her. I want to live an honest and authentic life, but not if it means hurting innocent people I love. Pursuing my own happiness at the expense of my children’s seems utterly selfish. However, I’m also terrified my children will find out the way I did. Truth has a way of coming out. Am I naïve to think we’ll be able to keep this secret for the rest of our lives?
A: Yes, you’re naïve for thinking you’ll be able to keep not just an affair but a soulmate-style, deeply-in-love type of affair with someone who regularly sends gifts to your children a secret from your family for the rest of your lives. Or rather, more than naïve, you are attempting to kid yourself, because you don’t want to believe that you’ve created the very situation you hoped to avoid. The last time you planned to “keep something to yourself for the rest of your life” it was your feelings for Alison, and look how that turned out. At the risk of sounding censorious, I do not think you are very good at keeping secrets for the rest of your life. Don’t feel bad about that—most people aren’t. The fact that you two have introduced your husbands to one another and keep in touch with one another’s children suggests that on some level you’re hoping to drive this to a crisis point. But if you continue your affair, and continue throwing your families into one another’s path, I think the odds that your husbands or children will eventually stumble across something they’re not supposed to will grow very, very high, and that is probably the most hurtful possible outcome of this whole scenario.
I wish I could tell you that living an honest and authentic life meant you would never hurt or inconvenience or upset or even damage other people; but the question here isn’t “How can I be an authentic person in general?” The question is “Knowing that I am capable of love with this woman that makes what I thought of love with my husband look merely like friendliness, do I think I can fully commit to my marriage with him for the rest of my life?” Right now, the option you’re pursuing maximizes secrecy and shame, maximizes hypocrisy (because you two are continuing to push your families together), minimizes freedom and authenticity, and is going to make you feel more and more trapped, and less and less like you have any sort of agency. Love, even soulmate-style love, has been known to curdle under such conditions. I think it would be better to either see if you can possibly recommit to your husband or whether you simply need to end your marriage, accept the hurt and pain that come with divorce, and work on becoming the best possible co-parents you can be. Even if Alison never leaves her husband, you can still pursue an honest and authentic life where you acknowledge and affirm your feelings for women.
Q. My dad wants me to be the best man at his wedding with his secretary: My dad left my mom several years ago for a much younger secretary who’s my age. They’re getting married a few months from now. She makes him happy. Their age difference and work relationship are fine, morally speaking, but I am really disappointed to see my dad start this new chapter of his life. Not to mention the likelihood that they had an affair while he was married to my mom. He also told me they want to have kids together, which I think would be a mistake. (He’d be a 70-year-old man raising young teenagers, when he should be enjoying his life!) He’s invited me to their wedding and suggested he wants me to be his best man. I don’t want to say no and ruin our relationship, but saying yes would mean gritting my teeth through an event I find agonizing. Help!
A: If you’re willing to attend but not serve as best man, I think you have grounds to say, “Dad, I love you and I’m glad you’ve found someone who makes you happy, but I think it’d be too complicated for me to serve as best man, so I’d like to just attend as a guest” because of your parents’ divorce without going into your private reservations about your future stepmother’s value. (Is she his secretary, or a secretary? I couldn’t quite tell from your letter.) Then again, it doesn’t exactly sound like he’s asked you outright, but merely hinted. You can also simply refuse to pick up on that hint. But beyond explaining what you are and aren’t prepared to do at his wedding, I don’t think you should try to dissuade him from having more children, and he’s certainly aware of what her job is (right now). The fact that they may have gotten together before he left your mother strikes me as the most important issue here. What’s done is done, of course, but it makes sense that you would keep yourself at a slight remove from their relationship—I think asking your adult child to serve as best man to the woman you left his mother for is, at best, very naïve, and you shouldn’t have to grit your teeth and do it. You can say no and explain why without denouncing him or insulting his relationship with his soon-to-be-wife.
Q. Culturally insensitive? Is it inappropriate or culturally insensitive to dress as a witch or wizard for Halloween? I was recently told that my Halloween plans to dress as a witch are offensive and I’m torn—was this person serious or making a joke? I’ll note that my planned costume is more Harry Potter and less “sexy witch.” Is it time for us all to say goodbye to witch and wizard costumes?
A: To return to our first letter—there’s an immediate and clear disconnect in tone when it comes to a wedding celebrated at a slave plantation, the site of generations of trauma, stolen labor, and cruelty, the consequences of which can still be felt through the aftereffects of Jim Crow, redlining, the KKK, the poll tax. The same case cannot honestly be made about the treatment of witches and wizards in this country. You might be able to find someone who truly and sincerely believes that the Salem Witch Trials affected real wizards and, as such, that it’s inappropriate to don a Harry Potter–branded magician’s robe on Halloween; I would not find that person reasonable, would not be persuaded by their objections, and would not lose sleep if they disagreed with me on this particular issue and described my behavior as insensitive as a result.
Q. Pregnant martyr: I’m hoping you can help me figure out another way to frame things for my wife. We decided to “take turns” being pregnant, and I went first. I was fortunate and had a fairly easy pregnancy. Now three years later, she is six months along, and not having nearly the same experience as I had. But, from what I’m seeing, she’s trying to “tough it out”—because I wasn’t a “burden” for her, she doesn’t want to be one for me. Prime example: After using a pregnancy pillow for a week, she was able to sleep much more comfortably. I did not use it because it takes up most of the bed, so I am uncomfortable with it. Rather than take me up on my offer to sleep in our other room so we can both be awake and attentive for our 3-year-old, she adamantly insisted she would stop using the pillow so we could stay in the same bed. And then she went right back to sleeping terribly. How can I get through to her? I hate seeing her suffer like this!
A: The good news is that in a few months this will all be moot, and you can hopefully go back to whatever method of conflict resolution was working for you both before her pregnancy. But arguing with someone who’s committed to martyrdom (even if they’re doing so with the best of intentions rather than a conscious desire to manipulate) can sometimes feel like arguing with a brick wall. But the good news here is that I think you both really do care about one another’s comfort! I think a combination of explanation and insistence will do the trick: Tell her that she’s not a burden to you, that everybody handles pregnancy differently, and that you know if the situations were reversed that she’d want to do everything within reason to make sure you slept comfortably. Then, rather than “offering” to sleep in the other room, tell her that you’re going to, just for the next three nights, as an experiment to see if you both get better rest and feel more equipped to deal with your toddler in the mornings. If the experiment goes well, then you only have to sleep apart for a few months.
Q. Reuniting with ex-wife while missing girlfriend: I left my girlfriend to try to reunite with my ex-wife. My 4-year-old son was having trouble with Mom and Dad living apart. My ex-wife had been telling me about bad dating experiences she was having, and then one day my friend called me and said, “Do you want to save your family?” and gave me some pointers on how to get her back. I made a snap decision to do it. Now I’m filled with regret over the decision and miss my girlfriend like crazy. She’s much younger than me (I’m 40 she’s 23) and some of my friends and family didn’t approve. My ex-wife and I are taking it slow, and my son doesn’t know anything about it. I feel like I’m going crazy. After trying so hard to get over my ex-wife (who left me) I’m finding it hard to get back into a relationship.
A: The good news here is that your son doesn’t yet know that you and your ex-wife are trying to reconcile, so if this experiment doesn’t work out, he won’t experience any additional confusion or disappointment. My best advice to you is to see a couples counselor with your wife and a private therapist on your own, and to really take your time figuring out how you two might establish a different kind of relationship than the one you had before. You tried to win her back rather impulsively on the advice of a friend without, it sounds like, giving a lot of thought to what “saving your family” might look like on a daily basis once the two of you are back together. That’s not to scold you for trying to make things work with your wife, but merely to suggest that you’ve only just begun trying to see if you can save a particular model of your family, and it makes sense that things aren’t immediately and permanently all better now. Taking it slow is a good idea; add some professional help to the mix and spend a lot of time talking about what you two can do differently in the future, what you learned while you were apart, and what you want and expect from one another. With that, I think the odds are good that you’ll find yourself pining less and less often. It makes sense that you miss your girlfriend, who I’m sure was a lovely person; you went from a collapsing marriage into a brand-new relationship with someone young and fresh and with relatively few romantic disappointments in her rearview mirror. That doesn’t mean she’s the only person who can make you happy, or that you’ve made a mistake; it just means that things are easier when you date someone young and easygoing. But no one stays young and easygoing forever.
Q. Re: Plantation wedding: We shouldn’t be so sensitive to every historical wrong—no matter how egregious—that we take it as an affront to ourselves and our current generation. My parents were outraged when I bought a Volkswagen, because … Holocaust (we’re Jewish). It made no difference when I pointed out to them that the people who built my car weren’t even born when their family members were murdered. It’s possible to condemn historical outrages without being trapped in them ourselves.
A: Without getting into whether that’s the most apt comparison, I’m not sure that “declining to attend a wedding held on a property that was built to hold enslaved people” is especially sensitive. I would consider it lightly sensitive. Nor do I think finding a different venue for a wedding means someone is “trapped in historical outrages.” It strikes me as a very easy thing to do, as there are a number of wedding venues in this country. There’s an entire industry devoted to showcasing wedding venues. They are not in short supply.
Q. Re: Sexist memes: Does your program have a school newspaper? If so, bring it up with someone at the paper who seems interested in gender issues. Seems like a great issue for a school paper to take on. As a freshman, you’re new on campus, so you might be reluctant to speak up, but you’re only there for a few years. The time to make your mark is now.
A: That’s another option I hadn’t even considered, and it manages to bring something furtive to light without going directly to a member of the faculty or the administration, in case you’d feel better bringing your case to the student body at large. Thanks for suggesting it.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks so much for your help today. See you next week!
From How to Do It
Q. I just ended a secret affair—but he was so much better in bed than my husband: I’ve been married for about 10 years. About a year ago, I had a brief affair. We realized it was a mistake and ended the relationship. He lives far away, so I haven’t seen him since. Neither of us told our spouses, and we have no intention to. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I won’t ever again. I feel bad about it and wish it hadn’t happened, except in one respect: The sex I had with this man was off-the-charts amazing. Like, I didn’t realize that sex could be like that. Sex with my husband is fine—but I feel like I’ve been watching a black-and-white TV my whole life and I suddenly discovered Technicolor exists. I don’t want to go back to this ex, but I can’t stop thinking about the sex. I realized that I get very turned on by things that are out of my husband’s comfort zone. I can’t talk to my husband about it—telling him about the affair would only hurt him, and when this kind of topic has come up in the past, he has been very clear that if anything ever happened, he wouldn’t want to know. How can I get over this?
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