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 soothing.
Q. My future SIL could do so much better: I come from a white old-money family in the Deep South, and ever since I went to college in the Northeast, my values have become quite progressive—and thus, quite different—compared with my family’s. My brother recently got engaged to a woman from India. My future sister-in-law is a computer engineer. She’s gorgeous, kind, and funny. My brother brought her to dinner at my parents’ home recently, and I was horrified by what I saw. My mother and father critiqued her table manners nonstop, like she was a child. My brother piled on, too. Prudie, my brother is a layabout who, at 35, still lives with my parents. By the end of the meal, my future sister-in-law was nearly in tears. I spoke to her afterward, and she told me that this is how these dinners usually go. I live out of state, so this was the first time I’d seen it. My husband and I tried to comfort her and tell her my family was out of line. I talked to my parents later, but my mother kept telling me they were trying to help “Gita” assimilate and that they didn’t want her to embarrass herself.
How can I talk to my family and tell them they are being horrible? Or, really, what I’d prefer is to tell Gita she should run. She’s a recent immigrant without family and friends here for support, and she’s in a vulnerable position. I hated seeing her bullied. She could do so much better than my brother.
A: I think there are ways to offer Gita your support that don’t amount to also discouraging her from marrying your brother. That’s not to say that I don’t agree she can do better than him—I think she can, and I think she should run as far away from your family as she can. But she’s already getting a fair amount of pressure from your family to exit this relationship, so I think you get the luxury of a different approach.
There’s no “trick” to telling your family that their rude, concerted effort to make Gita feel self-conscious and unwelcome was horrible. Just tell them you were surprised by their relentless rudeness, that nothing about it seemed helpful or in Gita’s best interests, that it struck you as obviously xenophobic, and that if you see similar behavior like that from them in the future, you’ll say something about it in the moment. I’m glad you checked in with Gita afterward, but I think interrupting the pile-on as it’s happening will go a longer way.
Q. I have a big crush on a couple: I’m a nonbinary person in my early 20s with a big crush on a married couple I met through my grad school program. The couple are queer, and one of them has vaguely mentioned that their marriage is structured differently from other marriages, but we’ve never expressly discussed polyamory/nonmonogamy/anything more than friendship. But Prudie, they are wonderful. I feel so connected to them and in awe of the life they’ve built together, and I would love to continue to get to know each other in a romantic way. They truly give me butterflies. Whenever we hang out it feels like a phenomenal date, and they’ve expressed that they like hanging out with me too, but again, that does not a throuple make.
My question is, how can I ask them if this is something they’re open to? What should I do with all this crush energy? Do I just wait for a friendship to develop and then see how it goes, or can I tell them I’m specifically interested in dating? I’ve never done any kind of poly dating before, but it’s something I’m totally open to and honestly excited to try.
A: I’ll assume that this married couple you met through your grad program are also grad students, rather than TAs or professors, because I’d have a very different answer for you if either of them was in charge of your education and possible future career path. As it is, I’ll assume they’re not both people you’ll presumably have to work very closely with day in and day out for the next few years of your program.
Let’s start with the simplest question: “What should I do with all this crush energy?” That’s part of the fun, and the frustration, of a crush: the strength and intensity of one’s feelings don’t necessarily translate to an easy or immediate plan of action, so one is left operating in a powerfully idle way for an extended period of time. Let yourself feel dreamy, let yourself gush to your friends occasionally, let yourself wander around a meadow speculating about wildly improbable scenarios, let yourself doodle on your notebooks, let yourself write embarrassing poetry—lean into it!
As for how to inquire about their availability—not just to other people in general, but to you in particular—you have grounds to make a small move here. Since your friend has already vaguely mentioned the arrangements of her marriage, you might say you were curious about what she meant by that and wanted to know her thoughts on polyamory or open relationships. If she says, “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I just meant we like to show Shetland ponies together at various Shetland pony competitions, and it’s unusual for a married couple to work together in the Shetland show-pony community,” then you can back off with most of your dignity intact. But if she goes into detail and the details seem promising, you can (politely) hit on the two of them.
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Q. Wedding blues: My brother got engaged to “Kitty” after knowing her for less than six months. Kitty demanded a destination wedding only to break up with my brother, leaving my family holding our nonrefundable tickets and lost vacation time. And it rained the entire week we were there. A few months later, Kitty managed to crawl back into my brother’s good graces and the wedding is on again! No one in the family is happy. Worse, Kitty is not even apologetic and constantly sulks or insults us. (She called my father “cheap” for not paying this time. He reminded her it is tradition for the bride’s family to pay.) My brother is completely wrapped around her finger.
My brother has asked me to be his best man—again—and I don’t want be within 10 yards of the crazy person he has shackled himself to. How do I tell him this? He is my brother and I love him, but he isn’t going to listen to reason. And frankly, I am still pissed about the first canceled one; my wife and I only get one week of paid vacation at our jobs and have mounds of student debt. That trip wasn’t cheap. We did it for my brother. I don’t want to lose my brother, but I need a way to let him down gently.
A: Since your goal is to let him down gently, rather than to leave open the possibility of being his best man if things change, I think this is your best bet: “I can’t be your best man for a couple of different reasons. I hope we can talk about them, because I care about you and I want to know what’s going on with you. The first is pretty simple: I only get a week of paid vacation every year and money’s really tight, so I’m still in debt from your first wedding. That was really hard to handle, and neither you nor Kitty ever acknowledged the way that canceling that wedding cost other people time and money. The second one is more complicated: I know you’re an adult and you can make your own decisions, but I don’t know what’s changed between you and Kitty since the first time she called off the wedding, or why you feel like things are different enough now that you can move ahead with getting married. I’m worried she’ll hurt you again, and I don’t have the information I need to feel like I can really support this wedding. That doesn’t mean I think I can try to stop you, or that I don’t care about you, but things are moving too fast for me to join in the wedding planning right now. Is this a conversation you’re available to have with me?”
Q. You’re vaping me crazy: My boyfriend quit smoking two years ago, after almost two decades of smoking. I am of course incredibly proud of him, but the problem is that he used vaping to wean himself off cigarettes, and he’s showing no sign of wanting to kick the vape habit. At one point he mentioned stepping down his nicotine levels, but I’m not sure if he ever went through with it, and it was only brought up once. He probably vapes more than he used to smoke, and he’s buying bottles of juice every few days.
I am a strong believer in letting people make their own decisions about their bodies and thus have never said anything negative about either his smoking or vaping habits, but it’s been getting to me lately. The science is still undecided on whether vaping is better or worse than smoking cigarettes, but I’m sure it can’t be good for you. He has trouble going a few hours without hitting the vape, and he leaves in the middle of concerts and other activities to go to smoking areas and vape. He’s constantly asking me to fill his vape pen with juice while he’s driving, and it’s a crisis if his pen dies and he doesn’t have the charger.
Is there any way I can bring up my concerns about what is clearly a new addiction without infringing on his right to bodily autonomy, or should I just accept that he’s an adult and can decide what’s right for himself? I should mention I’m particularly sensitive to this because I have a family history of lung cancer and other respiratory-system diseases, and I don’t think I can stand to watch another person I love struggle with this kind of illness.
A: I think you’ve got grounds to ask a few genuinely open-ended questions. You can make it clear you’re not trying to tell him what to do or trying to take something away from him, but you want to know a little more about how he feels about this new, semi-stable relationship with nicotine. You can ask if he’s ever tried to decrease his nicotine levels, and how that felt. Share what you’ve noticed about his dependence on having sufficiently charged pens around and how intense things can get if he has to face a few hours without it. It may very well be that he’s noticed all this too and is similarly frustrated with the current state of affairs; I’ve experienced my own unsustainable relationships with various smoking-cessation products, and I remember feeling equally resentful at my ongoing dependence on an incomplete form of nicotine and terrified at the thought of going with none at all.
Asking these questions could help you feel like this is something you two can talk about, even if it doesn’t necessarily or immediately lead to change, so that you can let yourself feel a little more distance from those points of crisis. It might even help to establish a boundary for yourself, like making him responsible for his own vaping supplies without asking you to titrate an at-home chemistry set while he’s driving. It would be perfectly reasonable for you to say that it makes you feel uncomfortable and instrumentalized, and to ask him to take responsibility for his own accoutrements.
Q. Cutting the ties: My ex–mother-in-law and I were extremely close during my seven-year marriage to my ex and have even remained close in the three years following the marriage. She still randomly stops by a few times a week and calls at least once a day. Now that I am remarried as of earlier this summer and attempting to establish new relationships with my current partner and his family, I am realizing that it may be time to politely take a few steps back—but not remove her from my life completely—as I start my new life. I have no idea how to do this without hurting this sweet woman, whom I do still deeply care about.
A: There’s a lot of room to scale down how often you talk to your former mother-in-law before you even come close to running the risk of not seeing her often. I’d start with the random visits throughout the week, since it sounds like she stops by unannounced. Let her know that your schedule has changed with your new marriage and that you’re no longer available for spontaneous visits, then suggest a weekly, biweekly, or monthly time to meet and catch up. You can also let her know that you won’t always be able to talk on the phone every day but that you’ll return her calls when you can. I don’t think this needs to be a terribly in-depth conversation, because what you’re proposing is still a perfectly reasonable and close relationship, and it will be clear you’re not doing this out of anger or resentment. If she seems confused or hurt, then you can certainly have a more thorough talk with her about not being able to be as available as you have been in the past, but even then you don’t have to go into too much detail trying to justify why you’re scaling back. Just reassure her that you still care about her and that these are your new limits.
Q. No goals: For the past two years, I’ve been working as an administrative assistant while preparing for and applying to graduate school. The position is low-paying and frustrating, but I knew it was going to be for a limited time, as the programs I applied to were all out of state. My supervisor knew this, and we’ve checked in frequently about timelines. Unfortunately, I did not get into any of the programs, which is painful in itself and happens to coincide with some other life factors that have me feeling pretty depressed (which I am getting help for). Yearly performance reviews are also coming up soon, and professional goal-setting is a big deal at my workplace.
I don’t know how to even approach goal-setting right now. The thing I’ve been working toward for years is currently out of reach, and it’s overwhelming enough to be reassessing whether grad school is the path for me without also having to come up with goals for a dead-end job that barely pays my bills. How can I find a middle ground that’s less disingenuous than completely faking my way through the goals but more professional than saying, “Honestly, my main goal is to make sure I take my medications on time.”
A: The good news here is that it sounds like your supervisor knows what’s been going on and is pretty supportive, so there’s reason to hope you can rely on them for a little guidance here. It may be totally fine with them if you say: “As you know, my long-term professional plans have suddenly changed, so right now I’m focusing on the job I currently have, continuing to support myself, and [maybe a detail or two about a long-term project you’d like to help with at work].” Homeostasis is a perfectly fine professional goal every once in a while! Good luck, look after yourself, and I hope something else opens up soon.
Q. Friend died of cancer, and only I know his dark secrets: My best friend of 10 years, “Tony,” died this summer. We did everything together: dinner every night, vacations together, and holidays at his mom’s house. While we are both gay men, our relationship was strictly platonic. (At one point he did have feelings for me, but I was never attracted to him.) Over the past few years, our friendship slowly fell apart because of his alcoholism. He would get falling-down drunk weekly. He broke his foot walking home drunk from a bar. He got out of multiple DUIs (one time blowing a .25), and even hit a homeless person last year while driving drunk. When he was drunk, he would want to talk about how he was molested as a child, which undoubtedly caused him major dysfunction; when drunk he would also talk about his father pretending to crash the car while Tony was riding along as a kid, which lead to Tony having panic attacks while driving as an adult. Tony would often talk about being afraid of impulse control—that he might jump off a tall building or even push someone else off. Two years ago at Christmas, he put a plastic bag over my head and pulled it tight “as a joke” in front of his mom. With all the times he made passing comments about smothering me with a pillow or stabbing me in the kitchen, I came to fear for my safety in his presence. No matter how many times I told Tony he needed therapy and not whiskey, he didn’t listen. He thought he was smarter than any therapist.
We had a friendship breakup this past April, and I started to build a new social life. Soon after our breakup, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within weeks of his diagnosis. I made the choice to not be there for Tony during his health crisis, aside from sending over some homemade popsicles. Since Tony had made the choice to stop hanging out with me (he even left all my stuff on his front porch), I saw no reason I should go back to this hurtful person, even if he was dying. After he died, his mom said she never wants to speak to me again. His other friends did not invite me to the wake and then, I’m told, spent the wake bashing me as the person who ruined Tony’s life. Tony worked to come across as very centered and stable, and nobody else but me really saw his demons. Incidentally, these friends were his drinking buddies who encouraged his alcoholism.
I would like to one day be friends with his mom again. I genuinely like her and am very hurt about the things she said to me. But I know she has no clue that her only son was molested as a child, traumatized by his father, and multiple times fled the scenes of accidents he caused while driving drunk. Being left with this information is very hard. I can’t simply “focus on the good times,” as so many friends have told me to do. Should I wash my hands completely of Tony, his mom, and all his friends? Or is there a way to regain those relationships?
A: This is so painful, and I’m so sorry—for the ways in which Tony suffered and for his untimely death, and for the ways in which he used his suffering to justify himself when he wanted to threaten and terrify you. I don’t think there’s a healthy way for you to renew contact with any of Tony’s old friends, if only because they’re likely to continue hurting you in exactly the same way: by blaming you for his choices, by disregarding your need for safety, by minimizing their own drinking problems and encouraging one another’s worst impulses. These are not people with reliable track records of honesty, respect, and kindness, and you should give them a wide berth.
It’s harder with his mother, I think, because you have a deeper relationship with her and you’re acutely aware of what she doesn’t know about her own son. But I don’t think she’s ready or able to hear any of these things about her son. She already saw him put a plastic bag over your head and draw it tight; clearly in that moment she was confronted with some of her son’s terrifying, dangerous behavior and decided not to do anything about it. She’s also made it clear she’s not available for any kind of conversation with you, about Tony or anything else. I don’t think that means your only option now is to “focus on the good times,” especially when everyone else who ever knew Tony is sort of treating you like a scapegoat for everything they ignored in Tony while he was alive. I think you should focus on the reasons it was right for you to stay away from Tony, and to possibly see a therapist for some help in dealing with your grief and sorrow at being one of the only people who knows the full extent of Tony’s demons. But I don’t trust that either Tony’s mother or his other friends will be good friends to you, even if you were to try to reach out; I think you need to give them all a wide berth and look out for yourself right now.
Q. Re: I have a big crush on a couple: TAs and graduate students are the same thing. TA stands for teaching assistant, and graduate students fill that role in order to pay for their programs. I think the word you’re looking for is lecturer or adjunct, referring to those who are not graduate students who teach at the university.
A: Ah, thank you! It didn’t sound like the letter writer was talking about a professor, but I couldn’t remember the various strata of non-professor instructors and advisers a student might run in to.
Q. Re: No goals: To the person who wrote in about not getting into any of the grad programs this year, I just want to encourage them not to give up. Try to find out whether it was a concern with your application (so that you can address it next round), just bad luck in terms of seats available (grad schools only take so many students, and some years that means great folks don’t get in), or whatever else might be behind the decisions. I know multiple people who didn’t get in the first year they applied to grad school. They didn’t give up, got in, and now are tenure track professors in their fields. If it’s really what you want, don’t take this round as the final answer!
A: Thanks for this. I hope the letter writer has a strong sense of how they might apply differently next year, and also gives themselves a little time to regroup and recover from this disappointment. But it’s a relief to know it’s not necessarily a sign that they’ll never get in, and I hope this time next year they’re getting much better news.
Q. I’m an atheist. How do I convey sympathy without “sending prayers”? I frequently see posts on Facebook or have people tell me in person about a health issue they or a loved one are facing, or a death, etc. Most people respond by saying they send prayers, but as an atheist, I am stumped by what to say. “Hope everything turns out OK” is not a very supportive answer! I usually just say they are in my thoughts, or I’m sending positive energy their way, but that just seems inadequate. Suggestions? Read what Prudie had to say.