Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Gay nephew: In April, when my husband’s 13-year-old nephew came out as gay, his father and mother packed a bag, locked the door, and left him on the front porch homeless. It was “God’s will.” I drove three hours to pick him up, and we have spent the summer getting legal custody and involving him in a LGBTQ-friendly school. At his 14th birthday, his mother (my sister-in-law) made an appearance and graciously didn’t call her child an abomination to his face. She is in “spiritual counseling” with her husband and has made noises about getting custody back. My husband wants to think the best of his sister and encourage our nephew to “forgive.” As far as I am concerned, she gave up her rights to call herself a mother when she locked her door against her crying child. We had to hide our scissors and cleaning products for a week on psychiatric advice because her religious invectives made her son want to kill himself. My husband doesn’t understand why I can’t be “civil” to his sister, and I think he needs to focus on what is best for the child in our care rather than the bitch who abandoned her only child. We keep fighting about this, and it is getting to our nephew. Personal therapy is out because we are paying for his out of pocket—how do we resolve this?
A: Right now your husband is spending the majority of his emotional imagination and empathy on his sister, asking himself how he would feel in her situation and prioritizing her interests, rather than asking himself how he would feel in his nephew’s place. It’s his nephew who is actually vulnerable and in need of support. Moreover, he’s prioritizing civility over actual kindness—it’s nice to be polite, but it’s far more important to treat children like human beings who deserve love, safety, and support, rather than yank that love and support away on the condition of their orientation.
If nothing else, I hope you two can agree that you shouldn’t have the majority of your conversations about this in front of your nephew, because he feels enough pressure as it is.
Set some time aside to talk each week, with a trusted friend as mediator if you can’t afford a therapist and want to have someone on hand to help you both clear your heads when emotions run high. If you have a local chapter, it may also help to attend a few PFLAG meetings, both to meet other parents and for your husband to get a clear sense of just how crucial it is for LGBTQ teens to have a safe, accepting, and loving home environment, and how deadly religious abuse can be. Consult with a lawyer—preferably the one you used to get custody in the first place, if you used one—and collect evidence that your nephew would likely suffer mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse if his biological parents were to regain custody so soon after abandoning him. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I’m glad your nephew has you in his corner.
Q. Should I call off my wedding?: I’m getting married in a month and I have been overcome with feelings of doubt. My partner and I don’t have sex very often, it’s always over superfast, and I feel like sex with me is just a chore for them. I’ve brought up my dissatisfaction with our sex life in the past, and it’s always either dismissed or my partner becomes so distraught that we abandon the topic and focus on calming them down.
I worry that it’s a huge mistake to go into a marriage hoping things will improve. They are my best friend and we have so much fun together, but I worry that sex will be our downfall. I know I should have addressed these concerns long ago, but I struggle talking about sex due to being abused in my past relationships. The wedding is so close. I don’t know if I can work this out through counseling, or if we should push back the wedding, or if I should call it off. I feel like a horrible person. Please help.
A: If you feel like a horrible person, are unable to have an open and honest conversation with your partner about sex because they start to panic, and are experiencing significant dissatisfaction with your sex life a month before your wedding, then those are very good reasons to postpone. Yes, it’s soon, but imagine walking down the aisle in 30 days feeling overcome with doubt and uncertainty about how the two of you manage difficult conversations and intimacy. Counseling is an excellent idea, and I think you should pursue it with hope and optimism, but better a postponed wedding than an early divorce.
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Q. Leaving my boyfriend of 12 years: My boyfriend is completely emotionally and financially dependent on me. We’ve been together since we were 13 years old, and in a lot of ways I feel like I basically raised him. He’s extremely loving and devoted and was my rock through a long, difficult period of my life, but I’ve reached a point where I’m tired of mothering him and I need him to act more like a partner than just a source of emotional support. I am still in love with him, but I feel like we’re not matched as life partners and that I’ll either support him my whole life or we’ll keep drifting along and the eventual breakup will be even more painful. How should I approach breaking up with someone I love but whose actions have often been a drain on my time and energy? Please help me find kind words to ease my best friend as I inflict this horrible change on him.
A: The most important thing you can do, for your soon-to-be-ex and for yourself, is not to consider this breakup as a “horrible change” that you are inflicting on him. A long-term romantic partnership should serve both of you. That’s not to say all relationships are completely equal in every single moment, but you have just as much right to pursue your own happiness as he does. Ending this relationship is not something you are doing to him so much as you are doing for yourself. The fact that in the past your relationship has been a source of strength and support to you does not mean that you ought to force yourself to stay in it long after that’s stopped being the case. You two have been through a lot together, and meant a great deal to each other, and that’s lovely, and meaningful, and real, even if you don’t stay together forever. You can tell him you care for him, that this relationship has meant a lot to you, but that it’s no longer making you happy, and you don’t want to continue in it. He will have to find support and comfort from other sources. Don’t assign yourself the responsibility of supporting him through your own breakup.
Q. Borrowing from friends: Fourteen months ago my husband borrowed a boat motor from a friend because ours was at our camper a couple hours away. A freak accident occurred, and it became slightly damaged. We were terribly sorry, of course, and paid to have it fixed. The problem is that he has just come to us saying his motor doesn’t work. He seems to think that we owe him the money to fix it or to get a brand new motor! The thing is 9 years old, and we paid to have it fixed. A new, comparable motor would cost $1,500. He was fine with it a year ago. We are shocked that he’s come back to us over a year later. It’s putting a strain on the friendship, and it’s just a nasty situation. What do we do here? Do we owe him anything?
A: If you paid to have the motor fixed over a year ago, and it subsequently worked for another year before dying a natural death (I have no idea what a boat motor’s average life span is, but nine years sounds like a reasonable length to me), then you’ve adequately discharged your responsibility already.
Q. Dad has a clear favorite: For as long as I can remember, my dad has clearly favored my twin brother, “Dean,” over me. It’s a little bit ridiculous. All of his friends acknowledge it and joke about it. Our dad has always thought Dean to be the smarter one, encouraging him to study, go to college; taking him to internships; and talking about his bright future. He even shared his beloved record collection with only Dean. To me, he makes offhand comments about how menial labor might be what I’m destined for. How can I not let this affect my relationship with Dean, who actually is a great guy and asks for none of this?
A: I think it’s admirable that you want to maintain a good relationship with your brother despite years of painful and obvious favoritism, but I hope you don’t feel that you can only do this by minimizing or ignoring your sadness at being slighted. It may help to talk to Dean about this—not in a way that assigns blame to him, or that asks him to fix your father, but simply to acknowledge reality and be honest about how it makes you feel. It may also help you to say something to your father: “Dad, it hurts when you say that I’m destined for menial labor and spend a lot of time talking about Dean’s bright future. Please stop.”
Q. Long-term lover: My boyfriend and his ex had a “mutual breakup” when she chose a new job on the coast over him. He was dating me when she moved back and made a move to “reconnect.” He rebuffed her, but she will not go away—she is firmly wedged into his social group, because she’s best friends with his brother’s wife. Now a friend of theirs is getting married, with her as maid of honor and my boyfriend as best man. She is everywhere. Worst, she pretends she wants to be friends and invites me out. It is awkward, all these in-jokes I don’t get and her laughing it up. She has not been dating since she has moved back here.
My boyfriend is losing patience. He offers to let me look through his phone but says that I don’t trust him and that I have to get over this. I don’t know why his ex will not just go away or why she needs to text him about coordinating wedding details. I don’t know what to do other than be there every time she is around. I feel like I am going crazy. Help!
A: Your current strategy of dealing with your anxiety is driving you crazy, frustrating your boyfriend, and doing nothing to relieve your insecurities. It sounds like your boyfriend made it clear that he wasn’t interested in getting back together with her but has been able to remain on friendly but disinterested terms, so the real work to be done here is to figure out how you can manage your unfounded anxieties without attempting to control where this woman goes or how often she laughs. You don’t have to go out with her or respond to her overtures of friendship, but I think you should take your boyfriend’s advice and find a way to make a civil peace with her existence. It would be one thing if he were inviting her over to the house and asking you to take her out with you and your friends, but they’re in a wedding together and it’s not reasonable to demand he never see or contact her. If you think that occasionally texting with her about a rehearsal dinner is going to be what ends your relationship, that fear does not appear to be rooted in reality.
Q. Leftovers: Now that my husband and I are done with having babies, we offered up all our old items—car seat, stroller, baby clothes, etc.—to our extended family and got either a firm no or radio silence. So we donated them all. But my husband’s half-sister, “Kimmy,” was secretly pregnant and didn’t tell us until afterward. Kimmy is 19 and still living at home with my mother-in-law and her disabled father. My mother-in-law now is lambasting us for getting rid of everything “too soon” and not waiting to hear from her household. I understand she is under stress, but in our last conversation she said, “If you can’t get the stuff back, then it is your responsibility to buy new ones for this baby.” I told her she needed to have this conversation with the child’s mother and father and hung up the phone. War has been declared in response.
This is a pattern. My mother-in-law often expects the world from her older children while giving the world to her younger ones. Her oldest son went to live in a cabin in Alaska, and her youngest son is in jail. My husband is the successful (and closest) one, so most of dealing with her falls on us. My husband is usually good at running interference, but his work is stressful now and we have three kids. His mother howling into his ear is affecting his health. I am this close to being the bitch daughter-in-law and telling him to cut off contact. He will do it if I ask, but I don’t want to do this. Can you help me find a way out of this?
A: If your husband’s health is affected by listening to his mother yell at him repeatedly for donating baby accoutrements in a timely fashion after asking the rest of the family if they wanted them, then you should certainly encourage him to cut those phone calls short and to tell her only to call him when and if she’s prepared to drop the subject. You two are not obligated to take up the burden of “dealing with her” simply because you have jobs you enjoy or happen to live in the same state. If every conversation with her turns into “war” over an unreasonable demand, then you have no choice but to minimize the conversations you have with her.
Q. Critical mother-in-law: My mother-in-law is the queen of “helpful hints.” Any time we see her, she has a critical comment that she insists is only meant to be helpful. These can range from instructing us on cleaning the gutters to showing us how we are making our beds the “wrong” way. Last time we invited her over to eat with us, she spent 10 minutes telling me how the food I cooked should have had more butter and that I should cover the pan in the oven so that “it won’t dry out like this next time.”
These comments are pretty far from helpful, and I refuse to defend myself for the way I fold my towels. We have asked her to stop, but nothing changes. She only repeats that she has our best interests at heart and that she’s trying to help us, since she is older, has more experience, and knows better. My husband and I are in our mid-30s, and we are perfectly capable of cooking our own meals or painting our house or any of the other hundred things she thinks she knows more about than us. Short of never seeing her, how can we get her to stop “helping” us?
A: “Thanks, I’ll think about that,” repeated as often and as blandly as necessary. “Mm, that’s interesting,” “Oh, really,” and “You don’t say!” are excellent alternatives if you get tired of saying the exact same phrase over and over again. Give her no conversational purchase, and see if she doesn’t lose interest. If she keeps going, you may want to consider seeing her at least a little less.
Q. Don’t want to talk about weight: I am a fat person who is finally, after years of self-hate, making an effort to love my body as it is instead of constantly yo-yo dieting. I work in a health food store, where it seems like everyone—customer or co-worker—is obsessed with weight loss. All day I hear people discussing tips, products, and diet plans. Normally I just tune it out, but recently I’ve had an issue. Some life changes have caused me to drop a few pounds, and I cannot seem to get people to stop asking me about it or excitedly congratulating me! I am not losing weight on purpose, I don’t want to lose more, and I’m sick of people, ranging from longtime co-workers to people I don’t even recognize, acting like I should be happy about starting to shrink my apparently hideous body. What can I say to these people that won’t get me fired?
A: “Please don’t congratulate me. I don’t want to discuss my body, and I’m not trying to lose weight” is a perfectly polite response to either co-worker or customer—just because you’re at work doesn’t mean you forfeit the right to choose whether you discuss your body with someone else.
Q. Re: Dad has a clear favorite: Prudie, unfortunately you got taken. The writer is describing the family dynamics and plot points from The Venture Bros.!
A: Taken indeed! I can only live in hope that there are at least two siblings in real life who find the plight of the Venture brothers relatable.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone—remember, the live chat is on Tuesday next week! See you all then.
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Vintage Dear Prudence
Q. Smoking Fetish: Although I myself do not smoke, I have a real fetish for women who smoke. I try to always carry cigarettes with me, just in case someone (preferably an attractive female) is looking for one. Well, this plan worked; a single woman bummed a few cigarettes from me, and now something is developing (maybe just a friendship, but I’m hoping for more). When she realizes that I don’t smoke, however, she’ll wonder why I keep cigarettes. Would there be any good way to answer this question without scaring her off?
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.