Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Student loans and marriage: I’m getting married to the woman of my dreams this June. We’re both medical professionals, and I have a very high amount of loans ($230,000) while she has none. We’ve fought several times about whether or not she will help to pay these loans off when we’re married. I understand that she feels like they are my loans and thus my responsibility, but I can’t help feeling a little hurt that she’s not willing to help at all, since it will be a major factor in our married finances. Any advice about how to deal with this situation so neither of us feels taken advantage of?
A: Can you two schedule a few meetings with a financial planner before your wedding? You might also want to meet with a lawyer and discuss your various options when it comes to signing a prenuptial agreement. Not in the interest of being antagonistic toward each other, but because this is a difficult topic, a lot of money, and something that troubles a lot of couples. It makes sense to bring in additional help before you get married (and for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry that you had to go into this kind of debt just to get an education that prepared you for a medical career!). It’s understandable both that you feel hurt that she considers these loans your sole problem and responsibility, and that she feels daunted by the idea of signing up to pay off such a significant debt that you may have incurred before you two even met. It will be important to stress, I think, that you’re both looking for a workable solution, that neither of you is looking to leave the other out to dry, and that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for professional help as you figure out how to deal with this debt together. Even if she never contributes a penny of her own money to paying down your student loans, it’ll still affect your joint budget as a couple, and therefore it’ll be a part of your marriage.
Q. My spouse starves our guests: My husband thinks I prepare too much food for guests. It’s true that there’s usually extra at the end, but it’s not ridiculous or outrageously wasteful—just a few leftovers for lunch the next day. He likes to cook for company to prevent me from making too much, but when he does, he makes too little and gets angry when I point out the shortfall. For example, if he makes burgers, there will be exactly one per person and he’ll slice one pickle for seven people. I will pretend that I want to eat mine completely plain, but even when I hold back, it’s still not enough. Our adult guests are too polite to complain, but the kids will be confused and speak up when they have to split a small piece of lettuce between them. It’s embarrassing, but he either can’t see it or can’t admit it. If I try to add to his sad little spread, he will remove what I’ve prepared from the table before people arrive, and we’ll fight. What can I do, besides discreetly leave the table and come back with a few slices of tomato now and then?
A: I think you should have a conversation about this at a time when you don’t have any group dinners scheduled so you can talk without worrying about fighting in front of guests. He thinks you make too much, while he makes little enough that you’ve seen guests fighting over a scrap of lettuce; ask him if he’s noticed that too and, if so, why he’s pretended not to notice. This is fine to disagree over, but it’s not exactly a marriage-ending fight; I don’t think there’s any reason to avoid having a direct conversation. Maybe he has greater anxiety about food waste in general and this is the area where it’s leaking out the most. Ask about this as nonjudgmentally as possible so you can try to learn more about where he’s coming from. But I agree that it’s better to have a few leftovers than to offer your guests a spread so meager that they have to guess who’s assigned what burger toppings.
On a sheerly practical level, by the way, if you’re hosting a dinner and you notice your guests are puzzling over how to split three tomato slices, it is perfectly fine to ask, “Does anyone need more tomatoes/condiments/dressing/whatever?” and then go get some if anyone answers “Yes.” (Hopefully your husband isn’t such a stringent kitchen monitor that he would answer “No” on their behalf. If that’s the case, it might be better to start asking your friends to meet you in restaurants.)
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Q. Ghostie, but not the fun Halloween kind: I (30s, she/her) have been dating a man (40s, he/him) for five months. Prior to that, we were good friends for several years. He ghosted me after a pretty major skeleton in his closet was revealed, and I’m not sure what I should do about returning his stuff. Here’s what happened: There’s an ex-girlfriend he talks about fairly regularly, always in a negative light. She always appeared to be bullying and mean in his stories. He often would relate experiences he went through with her to experiences I had with my verbally abusive ex-husband. Several days ago, he revealed that at the time they dated, she was 17 and he was in his late 20s. I was floored and obviously had a lot of questions and a pretty negative reaction. He said he knows now that the relationship was completely inappropriate and had the potential to harm her, and that it was his responsibility not to date a minor. But he also got pretty defensive when I did not rush to absolve him. I can’t understand how he still talks about her in such a negative light, given that it was so long ago and she was literally just a kid at the time. And I feel misled that he kept this information from me for so long. He tried to turn my reaction around on me, saying mine has been more extreme than anyone else’s. He also tried to turn the focus back to his own feelings, saying he has already suffered a lot of guilt and shame over this and he’s not that person anymore. He said my reaction “sucked for him” and left my house pretty abruptly.
I have so many problems with his behavior and attitude that it’s not worth getting into here, and I don’t see the relationship as salvageable. Especially with the ghosting. It’s been six days and he has not called or texted. I’m sad over the loss of the friendship as well as the loss of the relationship, and I’m sick over the way it turned out, but I need to get his stuff out of my place. He left some clothing and a large musical instrument here—not something I can easily pack up and ship to his house. I feel like I will be seen as a cold, mean bitch if I text him and say: “Hey, I will leave your stuff on my porch until X day. You can come get it, otherwise after that day I will donate it.” But I also don’t feel like doing any emotional management whatsoever around this. If it were just little stuff I would donate it and move on, but I know I need to make some attempt to get his musical instrument back to him. Ugh. What do I do? What should I say, and when should I reach out? Is there any way to inoculate myself against being seen as “the mean one” here if I accept his ghosting for what it is and make no move to repair things or find “closure”?
A: Free yourself from the fear that your ex might think of you as mean. He’s going to think of you as mean for having questions about the fact that he dated—and then went out of his way to disparage—a 17-year-old when he was an adult. It’s good if he thinks of you as mean! His definition of mean is “someone who has appropriate boundaries.” That ship has already sailed, so you no longer have to worry about maintaining his good opinion of you.
I don’t think you should bother with leaving things on the porch if you know his address now. Frankly, I think you’d be well within your rights to donate it; he abandoned his stuff at your place rather than acknowledge for longer than five minutes that it might not have been a great idea for him to date a teenager. That’s not your fault. You’re free to donate this stuff, to give it away, or to mail it back and text him a picture of the receipt at the post office. And give thanks that you found out when you did and that he revealed his lack of character before you got any closer to him.
Q. How do I bring up marriage without proposing? I’ve been dating this amazing guy for the past three years (I’m male myself). We co-habit and have pets together. I love him deeply and am excited about spending the rest of my life with him. The issue is, other than a very brief talk we had when we were newly dating, the two of us have never discussed marriage, children, or long-term commitment. Now that we are three years into commitment, I’m terrified to raise the conversation. On one side, I don’t want to seem like I’m fishing for a proposal (or proposing). On the other side, if we have a fundamental incompatibility on the marriage issue, I’d rather know now than later. We’ve had a number of engagements, weddings, and births we have celebrated during the time we’ve been together, but any effort on my part to use them as an opening for a deeper discussion have been sidestepped. At this point, I love our life now, and a part of me would be fine if nothing changed. On the other hand, I just turned 30 and I feel like I am a diminishing return on the dating scene. As such, I am terrified to start over (in case of incompatibility). How and when should I raise this topic?
A: Raise it today or tomorrow. Tell him exactly what you told me: “We’ve never discussed marriage or kids or long-term commitment before. Part of me feels anxious about bringing it up now even though we live together. I’m really happy with the way things are, but I want to know more about what you think about marriage and kids, and I want to talk about my feelings on those subjects. Sometimes those feelings are complicated, and sometimes they go back-and-forth, and I want to feel like it’s something we can talk about without feeling like we have to push for a resolution or a decision. I also don’t want to avoid these conversations. Can we talk?”
Q. Therapist not transphobic, just awkward: For the year I’ve been in therapy, I’ve been quietly struggling with gender and the possibility of being trans. I’ve finally realized I’m happiest with labels like “transmasculine” and “nonbinary trans man,” and have started to use both he and they pronouns. My therapist has been positive about these realizations, but I don’t think she has a very deep understanding of nonbinary genders. She keeps asking me how I feel about being a “transgendered man,” and she stumbles over singular they pronouns. She said she’s worked with trans people before, but I had to explain what a binder is. It’s been a bit disappointing to have to use my sessions to educate and explain terms. Is it worth it to ask her to read up on the breadth of nonbinary identities? Would it be insulting to give her some of the books I read while figuring myself out? I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a more knowledgeable therapist who works sliding-scale.
A: It is not insulting to ask your therapist if she’d be open to reading a bit more about nonbinary identities. And I think it would be good for your working relationship if you could simply and nonjudgmentally acknowledge the present dynamic: that she’s generally supportive and thoughtful, that she struggles a bit with gender-neutral pronouns, and that there are a number of practices and terms common to transmasculine people that she’s not yet familiar with. You might even, during this conversation, say, “I’m happy to answer some of these questions now, or to give you a basic primer about what binding is, what terms we generally use about ourselves and why, etc,” before pointing her in the direction of supplementary reading. But therapy patients are allowed to give feedback and ask for things, and I think you have every reason to think your therapist would respond positively to this request.
Q. Makes me want to puke: I work in an assisted living facility, and one of my co-workers has a side hustle selling scented products for a multilevel marketing company. He recently brought one of his products and turned it on. The majority of my co-workers think it smells great, but I can’t stand it. The scent is so overpowering that I get a headache, and it makes me nauseous. Other people have told me that it gives them headaches too. I turn it off when I can, but the scent just stays. I don’t want to be the overly sensitive person, but I’m starting to dread coming to work. Should I talk to my co-worker directly, or should I ask our supervisor to talk to him?
A: Lord save us all from smell-based pyramid schemes. Talk to your co-worker directly, and if that doesn’t take, it’s time to take it to your supervisor. Hopefully he responds well to a straightforward request: “These products are very strongly scented and have been giving me headaches. Can you please stop turning them on at work?” This isn’t an argument about whether he’s a good or honorable salesman, so don’t let yourself get drawn into one. You’re telling him that these scents make you nauseated and give you a headache to such an extent that it’s difficult to get work done. It’s not overly sensitive to ask someone to stop melting highly scented candle wax when the fumes make you ill. If he pushes back, talk to your supervisor; you’re not the only employee who’s having a hard time with these fragrances, and I’d be willing to bet some of the residents at your facility have a hard time too.
Q. Can’t stand attention: I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I get intensely annoyed when some of my co-workers ask me normal questions (“How was your evening?”) or try to get overly friendly. It makes no sense because I have a gigantic fear of being left out, but too much attention makes me want to retreat to my little desk cave. However, since this is a modern workplace, we are all crammed in like sardines, so I’m constantly either giving a fake smile and forced responses or putting on my headphones. How do I become a nicer person and stop shunning attention?
A: I can understand feeling a little hassled when it comes to making small talk with co-workers that you know is going to fixate on a handful of issues (the weather, the commute, your weekend, your evening). I can even understand the somewhat-contradictory desires to not be left out and to not have the spotlight on you. I think it’s fine to put on your headphones when you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t want to be drawn into conversation. But sometimes those conversations are unavoidable (and can even, sometimes, be fun!) and it might help to have a few stock responses or topics you feel comfortable discussing with co-workers that don’t feel so personal that you feel you’re losing your boundaries at work (“Terrible, I think my roommate is stealing from me”), but also aren’t so impersonal that you feel like a robot (“I ate and slept—did you also eat and sleep last night?”). Maybe there’s a TV show you love, an author you enjoy reading, a hobby like knitting or chess or running or cooking that you feel comfortable talking about at length. Or there’s always the classic move of the secretly shy: Ask your co-workers questions about their hobbies, their favorite TV shows and recipes, and so on, and let them talk about things that interest them.
Q. Leave relationship because of unhappy daughter: My 13-year-old daughter and I moved two hours to live with my boyfriend of three years. It has been a month, and she hates school because she doesn’t have any friends yet. Now my boyfriend is miserable because she is, and he’s suggested that we may have to move back. I found a Girl Scout troop for her, but most of the girls go to the other middle school in town. Her sport doesn’t start until spring and the school clubs haven’t started yet. The school counselor is unhelpful, perhaps overwhelmed. My daughter eats lunch by herself every day, which breaks my heart, but it would also crush me to leave this man and go back to a long-distance relationship. Is this just a sacrifice you have to make as a parent?
A: I’m hesitant to suggest a move after only a month. Moving is hard, and it can take more than just four weeks for a kid to find friends and feel established in her school’s social scenes. I’d be inclined to give it at least six months before you declare the experiment a failure. School clubs will start soon enough, and the spring semester isn’t that far away; no kid is going to make a brand-new group of friends in a single month with people they know just as well as the kids they grew up with. My bigger concern here is that—again, after merely a month—your boyfriend seems to think of your daughter as a malfunctioning toy and wants to send you back without much in the way of a conversation about how you can both better support her (and how he can make her feel welcome in his home and this new town). Does he generally treat her well? Have the two of you talked much about how his relationship to your kid must necessarily change if you all live together? Is there a reason your boyfriend never considered moving in with the two of you? Do you have a sense that your daughter’s happiness and well-being is a priority for him, or do you have a sense that her unhappiness makes him uncomfortable and that he’s inclined to treat her as a liability that needs to be unloaded as quickly as possible? Depending on how you answer those questions, I’m not sure you should go back to a long-term relationship with him should you decide to leave.
Q. Re: My spouse starves our guests: I’m on the opposite end of that spectrum. My wife is a genius at inviting large numbers of guests on days when she starts work early and gets home late, and I tend to overprepare every time we have guests. At this very moment, my fridge is groaning with food from a party last Thursday and I have cases of beer and wine on the balcony because there’s nowhere else to put them. It’s a little tiresome, but we started on the perishable food and took a meal to a friend who’s going through a tough time, and nothing has gone to waste. Too much food is not a big deal, but if it really bothers you, I would suggest developing a few simple staples that can feed many people cheaply. Ottolenghi’s butter beans in smoked cascabel oil, for example, are amazingly simple to make, fill up a plate, and last for weeks.
A: There are so many possible compromises to this problem! It all rests on being able to talk about it and honestly discuss what your respective worst-case scenarios and greatest fears are when it comes to hosting guests.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My daughter is a first-complainer: My 9-year-old daughter claims she is mostly friendless and describes a rough, heartless situation at school. It is true that she doesn’t do a lot of play dates and I have to really help make those happen. But after my daughter describes some mean or dismissive thing that happened, in the next breath she will talk about the singing group she’s formed or how she teamed up with Katie on a project. When I’ve asked the teacher for her perspective, she sees a well-liked girl with friends, full stop.
I want to listen and advise, but I’m starting to suspect my daughter has a distorted view of the reality, or her expectations are way too high, or both. I wonder how to walk the line between empathy, sympathy, and reality. She’s a kind, creative, dramatic kid with good grades, but she is a first-class complainer. How can I help her?
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