Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My newly adopted dog: I recently adopted a dog, and I’m experiencing extreme buyer’s (adopter’s?) remorse. He gives me a massive amount of anxiety. I spend all day worrying that he’s going to destroy my apartment. When I walk him, he scares me because he tries to charge other dogs. He can’t be left alone with my girlfriend’s dog because they got into a fight early on and actually drew blood.
The long and short of it is that I don’t want to keep this dog. I’m sure he will be a wonderful dog for someone, but I don’t think I can give him the care and training necessary to get there. I attempted to talk to my girlfriend about it, and it devolved into a huge argument, with some fun “If you can’t handle this, how can I expect you to handle something in our relationship?” thrown in. We’ve had more constructive conversations since, but I still feel like I don’t have any kind of meaningful choice about what to do; if I suggest returning him to the shelter or fostering until someone else adopts him, it’ll turn into another fight. What should I do?
A: This is worth having a fight with your girlfriend about—after you’ve returned the dog to the agency you adopted him from. Did they mention his hostility toward other animals to you before you took him home? It doesn’t sound like they gave you any warning before sending him back with you, and I’d be concerned about this organization’s ethics if I were you (specifically, that they’d try to dump a highly aggressive dog in need of a lot of training and monitoring on some other unsuspecting owner). Tell them you’re not able to keep the other dog in your house safe from him, that you’re not qualified to care for his highly specific needs, and that he needs to be adopted by someone who can guarantee he’ll be the only animal in the house and is comfortable dealing with an aggressive dog. If your girlfriend gets angry with you, that doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing; I think you can comfortably defend your choice even if she disagrees. You would never have taken this dog home if you’d known about his issues, you’re concerned about her dog’s safety, and you know he wasn’t happy living with you. You acted in everyone’s best interests, and that doesn’t make you inconsistent or afraid of commitment. If after all that she still disagrees, then you two may have fundamentally incompatible views on what commitment means. (And I still think that’s better than having a fight if your dog were ever to attack and really hurt or even kill hers.)
Q. Cheated on: I am a twentysomething lesbian; my girlfriend, “Amy,” is a twentysomething as well. We’ve been together over a year and a half, live together, have a cat, have been through a lot for each other—mainly Amy’s homophobic, wildly right-wing family. They make fun of her for using marijuana to medicate, being a lesbian, having a full-time job, etc., until she cries, and then they make fun of her for that, too (her own identical twin has admitted to being unsure about coming to our hypothetical wedding or being nice to Amy’s potential children). Amy’s last serious relationship ended with cheating—consistently and regularly by the ex, so she’s had some insecurities in ours. I’ve had no problems with her looking through my phone, asking about which friends I had or hadn’t dated, or anything like that, because I have nothing to hide. We have had issues with her seeing messages on my phone from four years ago and using them against me. Amy got home last weekend at night and confessed to cheating on me with a man. She says she’s confused about her sexuality because she wants to make her family happy and wanted to try it with someone she had been intimate with before to stay safe, and everything is confirmed for her—I’m who she wants to be with, she’s gay, etc. I can’t help but feel betrayed. On one hand, the one partner I never expected to cheat on me, the one who knows how much it hurts and has been vocal about leaving me should I commit this same offense, did, by lying about who she was with, where she went, and what she did. On the other, I can’t help feeling like she’s in an impossible spot and didn’t know what to do. Yet I also feel she made the absolute worst decision possible. How can I be considered her partner if she couldn’t talk to me about this? How can I/we move past this? I don’t even know what I want yet—maybe I should decide before asking for advice.
A: I’m so sorry you’re in this position right now. More than anything, I hope you feel like you deserve to take time to think this over, to talk about how you’re feeling with your friends, and to weigh what you want to do next. You don’t have to keep Amy’s cheating a secret; you’re allowed to ask for help. Yes, her family is homophobic, and that’s very sad; yes, she’s been cheated on in the past, and that’s sad too. But her having a sad past doesn’t mean that you have to excuse or immediately forgive her when she hurts you in the present. That would give Amy unlimited license to treat you however she wanted without consequence just because her past is “difficult” and yours supposedly isn’t by comparison. You can both have compassion for her suffering—I absolutely believe that she feels both internal and external pressure to be straight in order to regain her family’s approval—and decide to end this relationship because she’s cheated on you and has tried to make you feel responsible for things other people have done in the past (monitoring your text messages because someone else cheated on her, for example). Amy has been through a lot, but I’m concerned that you seem to feel like when she behaves badly, it’s because someone else is responsible for hurting her—whereas she seems to feel that even when you behave responsibly and lovingly, you’re still under suspicion. I think if you treated her the way she treats you, Amy would be out the door in a heartbeat. I’m sure Amy is a complicated and lovable person who’s struggling with a lot, but it doesn’t sound like she’s currently capable of being a good girlfriend to you. You deserve better.
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Q. Father’s financial threats: I have had a complicated relationship with my father for most of my life. He does not display any physical affection toward me, nor has he ever told me he loves me (when asked directly, he does not even answer with a definite yes). He treated me cruelly when I was younger. I’m a competitive runner, and once, when I said I couldn’t participate in a charity race, he accused me of not caring that my mother had cancer. He then secretly went into my phone afterward and deleted those texts, although I later found them on his phone. I was 14 at the time. He also once got a fake phone number to text me controlling, irrational running “advice” from (I was 16). He never admitted it was him, but stopped when I indicated that I knew it was. He’s given me the silent treatment for weeks at a time when I try to draw boundaries with him or get upset at his behavior. I’m currently 22, living away from home, and financially independent except for one cost: therapy. Therapy has allowed me to see that this behavior isn’t great, and I want to draw better boundaries with him and not be treated this way (tracking my location and attempting to control whom I’m traveling with have been the latest issues with him, and I want it to stop). Problem is, whenever I try to draw a boundary (keeping my location and exact travel plans private, for example), he threatens to stop helping me pay for therapy, which I obviously desperately need. My mother is married to my dad still, but avoids confrontations between us whenever possible, and I feel that I can’t rely on her alone. Ultimately my dad holds the cards. What do I do? How do I stop being controlled while maintaining the assistance that I need?
A: I think severing the last financial tie your father has over you is the most urgent priority right now, and to that end I’d encourage you to find a few stopgaps to make sure you’re able to receive at least some care once you stop taking his money for therapy. If you haven’t already talked with your therapist about the way your father uses his ability to pay for your sessions to control and monitor you, please do so immediately, and ask what payment options you might have in terms of a sliding scale or if your therapist can recommend a lower-cost alternative. I’d also start looking for Co-Dependents Anonymous meetings in your area or support groups for adult survivors of child abuse, turning to journaling or relatively inexpensive books about boundaries—anything you can do for yourself that’s free or cheap that will help you process the pain your parents have caused you while also reinforcing the boundaries you need to set for yourself. I think it would be better to even have to go a few months or a year without therapy while you saved money on the side than to have to deal with your father constantly threatening to pull funding, which he might decide to do anyway, even if you follow his instructions to the letter. You’ve already done so much when it comes to establishing financial and emotional independence from your parents, and you should be enormously proud of yourself. But I don’t think that your father does hold all the cards. Even if the worst-case scenario happens—he stops paying for therapy, your therapist has no sliding-scale payment options, and your next session is canceled—I still think the relief and freedom that you’ll experience while blocking his number and email address will be priceless.
Q. Helping friends? Our closest friends went out of town for a vacation. We offered to keep an eye on their place, but they said “Bob” would take care of it. A week after they left, there was a newscast talking about a lot of houses in their neighborhood getting vandalized. We tried to contact Bob to let him know, but we don’t have his contact info (despite several internet searches), and he’s not on social media. My husband suggested we take a run by their place just to make sure it was OK. When we drove by, their grass was tall, and it made the house look vacant. We decided to hold off on doing anything and give it a few days. We also talked about contacting our friends, but knowing how they are, we thought the husband would have gotten upset, and it would have put a damper on their long-overdue vacation.
When we went back four days later, the grass was still unmowed, and there was over a week’s worth of mail, including packages and a credit card. We decided to mow the lawn and collect the mail. Fast forward to their return a week later. They’re now upset with us because they say we’ve put them in a bad spot with Bob. I’ve apologized to the wife I don’t know how many times, and they’re still upset. We even got a text from the husband saying while he thanks us for what we did, he already had arrangements made, and he’s the kind of person who can and will hold a grudge. My husband and I are at a loss. All we wanted to do was help our friends, and if there was another way, we would have done it. The fact that we’re the bad guys now—where do we go from here? We’ve been friends for years, been through a lot with them, and I feel like one mistake has really damaged our friendship.
A: You say that your friend seeks out and cherishes grudges, which is a real shame but not something you can hold yourself responsible for. Yes, I think you overreacted to the news that a few houses got vandalized, and I don’t think a week’s (or even two weeks’) worth of uncut grass is a crisis, but you didn’t do any harm; you just picked up a few packages and did a chore before Bob got around to it. You’ve already apologized “I don’t know how many times,” and at this point, if your friends are still angry, it’s because they’re determined to be so. When someone is angry for a trivial reason, it can be tempting to bend over backward in order to get them to forgive you, but if they’re this angry over what really is a pretty trivial thing (how bad can their “bad spot” with Bob really be? He’s a lackadaisical housesitter, not a Mafia hit man gone rogue), I think the best response is to give them an opportunity to cool off and stop making yourself so responsible for them. “I love you both, and I think we’ve made it clear at this point that we’re sorry we interfered in your arrangement with Bob. We won’t do it again. I hope you can see your way toward letting this go, so when you’re ready to move on, please give us a call.” (It sounds like you and your husband have a history of feeling really responsible for keeping these friends happy! It might be worth reexamining whether you want to keep doing that in the future.)
Q. Letters from the past: When my mother passed away, I was tasked with going through her possessions and organizing them. She had once done the same for her mother. I discovered letters from the late 1960s from my mother to her mother, in which she spoke of her unhappiness in her marriage to my father and an affair she was having with another man. The affair ended when my dad was transferred to Europe, and we all went along with him. My mom made the choice to stay in her marriage and work things out. She was about 30 at the time, and she married my dad right after high school. Things got better, and they were married for more than 50 years before my dad died a few years before my mom. To my knowledge, he never learned of the affair.
I have compassion and empathy for my parents as young married people, and my mom’s brief affair doesn’t make me think any less of her. My question is: What do I do with the letters? They were private correspondences between my mother and grandmother. My mom briefly confided in me about her affair when I was in my 20s, but I didn’t know any details and didn’t ask for any. My instinct is to shred or destroy them. However, I have a brother who may want letters from Mom to keep among his mementos, and I have nieces and nephews (I don’t have children). I don’t want them to think less of my mom years after she’s dead, and to their knowledge my mom and dad were happily married for 50-plus years (I think they were, except for this tough period). My nieces and nephews adored their grandparents.
Do I have a right or even a duty to destroy the “evidence” of my mom’s indiscretion to protect her memory, or do they have the right to have old letters from their mom and grandmother? Most of the letters focus on how the kids (my brother and I) were doing in school, sports, etc., but there is a small part that mentions the affair. My grandmother was completely nonjudgmental about the affair in her responses. Do I destroy the 95 percent that is the good stuff to get rid of the 5 percent that is about the affair? I cannot really edit out part of the letters in order to save the other part. I am in my late 50s now and want to do the right thing by my mom. These letters were never meant for my eyes, yet here I am with them. Should I go with my instinct to destroy them, or keep them and let them be a surprise to whichever niece or nephew goes through my stuff upon my death?
A: What if you offered your brother and his kids a few of the letters that don’t mention the affair? You don’t say that anyone has asked for the whole correspondence, so I think you might be worrying prematurely. It’s far likelier, I think, that one or two of your relatives will express mild interest in seeing the letters or even keeping a few, but won’t want to take an entire archive into their homes. You can keep the letters mentioning the affair in your own collection and debate whether to get rid of them in the long run on your own time. No one is currently living whose marriage would be compromised by these letters, and your parents ultimately did have a long and happy relationship, so I think you have a lot of freedom here. If you decide to keep all the letters, that doesn’t mean you have to go to your brother’s house and announce the evidence of your mother’s affair; if you ultimately decide you do want to get rid of what ultimately amounted to a minor indiscretion in your parents’ marriage, I don’t think you’re censoring the past or going against your mother’s wishes. It may help to remember that the letters of most people, unless they are Charlotte Brontë, are not stored and remembered forever; those letters belonged to a very specific time and place, and it’s not your responsibility to preserve all of them forever.
Q. Not my problem? I work at a small agency, and our biggest client is a huge global brand. This client often makes intense requests that usually involve turning around a boatload of work with little to no notice and under an extremely tight deadline. My supervisor will say yes to almost any request before checking in with the staff about whether it’s doable. Over the years I have gotten a lot of practice saying no to my boss, because it’s important to me that my entire life is not consumed by work. Believe me when I say that this was a very tough lesson for me, as I’m a people-pleaser by nature. I am now honest with my boss about my limits. When they ask for something to be done by X time, I will tell them if it’s simply not possible (because I’m not going to work a 16-hour day when the client could have given us more notice) and then I suggest an alternative timeline, and it usually goes over well.
My colleagues are not as good at this. They take on all the work with a smile but end up working 10-plus-hour days and are deeply resentful in private. I sense that some of my colleagues resent me, too, because they notice I usually keep my workweek within 40–45 hours, while others are closer to 50. I believe they wouldn’t need to do this if they stopped saying yes to every impossible request. I am very valued in my position, so I may have more room to bargain, but really, everyone here is incredibly skilled. My boss seems to respect my honesty, and I don’t often get pushback about it. But I see everyone around me struggling the way that I was when I first started. I know that this is a problem my boss, the client, and capitalism at large created, but I think people need to start drawing firmer boundaries if they want shorter workweeks. I have tried to explain the value of saying no to colleagues who complain to me, but it falls on deaf ears. Am I wrong/inconsiderate for working fewer hours than the rest of the staff? Do I have a responsibility as a member of a team to also work 50-hour weeks in solidarity? How do I cope with the occasional side-eye for leaving work at a normal, reasonable time? By the way, we are all salaried and do not get overtime pay for the extra work.
A: You’re certainly not wrong for communicating your limits and declining to work unpaid overtime just because a client has failed to give you sufficient notice on a project, especially when it sounds like you’re still able to get everything done and keep your clients (and your boss) happy. I think the desire to work 50-hour weeks “in solidarity” with your co-workers is the result of some of that old people-pleasing nature creeping back in after you’ve set such healthy limits with your boss. You’ve already offered your co-workers your advice on how to cut down their hours, and they’ve ignored you; I think you should stop saying anything when they try to vent. Or at most confine yourself to “I’m sorry, that’s so frustrating” and then change the subject. If someone occasionally gives you the stink-eye when you go home at 5:30, quietly wish them the best in your deep and inmost soul, and then go home and do your best to forget about it.
Q. Good guy friend, terrible girlfriend: I recently saw a former friend out and about, but I don’t think he noticed me. I’ve been having a tough time lately and thought about reaching out to him, but his girlfriend complicates things. I had a falling-out with her last year. She was cool at first but super demanding about an indie podcast we were collaborating on. He also may have had more than friendly feelings for me. I told her last time I talked to her that it wasn’t my fault if he liked me, and her very condescending response was that I needed to be more aware of how I come off to others.
Prudie, he was the perfect guy friend. He listened when I needed to vent about relationships or mental health things and offered to help me move. He would just let me be who I am, crying and everything, but was always so calm, never really talked too much about himself. I find myself craving that safe space again, but his girlfriend would make his life miserable if she knew. Can we resume our friendship where we left off? Should I reach out and just let him handle her?
A: I am not sure that the two of you had a friendship! It sounds like he helped you move, listened to you whenever you wanted a nonjudgmental ear, never asked you for anything or talked about himself—part handyman, part venting outlet, part ghost. Perhaps his girlfriend is a difficult, unpleasant person, but it doesn’t sound like he’s especially interested in resuming his former one-sided friendship with you, and I don’t think you should contact him. Of course it’s not your “fault” if someone else has a crush on you, but it is your responsibility to treat your friends like human beings with reciprocal needs, to listen to them every once in a while, to offer to help them out in return when they’ve done you favors, etc. If you need someone to help you move, hire a mover; if you need someone to listen to you cry without talking about themselves, ask a friend to do so for a short, previously agreed-upon amount of time and then make sure you do the same for them someday. But leave this guy alone.
Q. Re: Letters from the past: You say you were tasked with going through your mother’s possessions. By whom? If this was your mother’s expressed desire, since you tell us that she had already told you about the affair, my guess is that you were assigned this job because you are the only one who she knew already knew. To me, this implies that she wanted you to keep the secret.
A: That seems like a pretty reasonable assumption. I really hope you can let yourself at least entertain the possibility of destroying 5 percent of these letters, because I don’t want you to feel like you’re single-handedly responsible for preserving your mother’s correspondence. Everyone else in your family still has wonderful memories of her, and that won’t change even if the letters are gone.
Q. Re: Letters from the past: Prudie, I think the letter writer was saying that in each letter 95 percent of the contents are about the mother’s children, etc., but 5 percent of each letter makes references to the affair. So it’s not a matter of just destroying some of the letters. All, or almost all, of the letters make at least a passing reference to the affair, so to keep/share any of the letters would reveal the affair to the rest of the family.
A: Ah, that makes more sense than my initial reading, which was that the letter writer just didn’t feel emotionally up to destroying that 5 percent. I’m having such trouble parsing letters this morning! Sorry, all. (And how inconvenient! If you think there’s a chance future generations might want to save your correspondence, be sure at least 50 percent doesn’t mention having an affair.) I think I’d still give roughly the same advice, which is that your relatives probably don’t want to hang on to every single one of your mother’s letters. Even if you only kept a handful, I think your brother and his kids would be perfectly happy just to see a few. Now, if all your relatives consider themselves to be armchair historians and go absolutely nuts for ancestral documents, that’s a different story—but I think you would have mentioned that if it were the case.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks so much for helping me take a second look at some of these problems, gang. I’ll see you all next Monday.
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From How to Do It
Q. I worry my brother and sister think I want to have sex with them: Recently, I was visiting my brother and sister in our home state, and we were joking about something sex-related. We were talking about taboos, and that led to talk of incest, and I said I thought it was sort of an overstated taboo—that most people seem to declare their disgust at it in a way that seems over the top. This brings us to my problem. Since it was on my mind and I was a little buzzed, I decided to please myself to a little faux-incest porn in the guest room later that night. Read more.