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, all! Let’s chat.
Q. Unmarried partner not invited to friend’s wedding: A friend of mine from college, “Chris,” whom I’ve known for 13 years, is getting married this summer several hundred miles away. Since I met my long-term partner six years ago, he and Chris have met several times for daylong events, enjoyed one another’s company, and exchanged birthday wishes, congratulations, etc., online—all of which is to say that my partner is certainly not a stranger.
Which is why I was shocked to receive a wedding invite addressed to me only. I called Chris to clarify that the invite was only meant for me and was told that only married couples were receiving a plus-one. Prudie, my partner and I were living together before this couple even met! It seems ludicrous to ask someone to spend $700 for a flight, two nights in a hotel, and a gift, while leaving their partner of more than half a decade home. Far be it for me to tell anyone whom to invite to their wedding, but am I right to be upset about feeling judged and excluded? If it matters, we are in our early 30s, and while Chris and his fiancée are fairly religious, it has never before factored into our relationship.
A: I think you deserve at least the chance to feel miffed! Certainly, in your position, I’d send my warmest congratulations and my regrets that I wouldn’t be able to attend. I agree that Chris has the final say in the guest list, of course, and that it can often be difficult to keep the number of invitations manageable, but to overlook a long-term, live-in partner simply because the two of you aren’t married is thoughtless.
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Q. Not available for suicide chat: My best friend “Anne” is a teacher at a boarding school and lives there full time. Recently, a 16-year-old boy from one of her classes died by suicide on school grounds. His body was found by Anne’s now-traumatized roommate. This is obviously awful, and Anne is in a terrible state about it. The school is paying for grief counseling for a lot of the staff and students, but obviously Anne wants to talk to her friends about this as well.
She has phoned me and met up with me to talk about it maybe 10 times in the past two weeks. I very much want to be there for her and be a supportive friend, but I’m not sure I can take talking about this with her for much longer. I have struggled very seriously with suicidal depression—including one attempt that Anne knows about—and every time we talk, I leave the conversation wanting to die or having a panic attack. I understand that Anne is grieving, but some of the things she says are extremely painful for me to hear, like when she expresses anger at his “selfishness” and rants about what a “cowardly” thing it was to do.
I have repeatedly tried to gently shut down these comments, saying things like “That’s not a great thing for me to hear as someone who has been suicidal” and “I think it’s hard to think about anyone else when you’re so miserable you want to die.” She seems to appreciate these comments and will change her tone in the moment, but then they start up again next time she talks about it and I am left distraught, feeling like I want to die but also that killing myself would make me an even worse person than I already feel myself to be. I’ve started just ignoring her calls and messages, but that feels cowardly and like I’m being a very poor friend. Is there anything I can do that isn’t totally selfish (like blanking her in this awful time) but that makes this easier for me to deal with?
A: Oh, you absolutely have grounds for letting Anne know that you are not available for any more of these conversations, especially since you’ve already had to remind her (!!) that dismissing a dead teenager as a selfish coward is distressing to you, as someone who struggles with suicidal ideation. There is a time and a place for unfiltered venting, and that place is with a therapist. “I wanted to let you know in advance that I’m just not able to talk any more with you about this boy’s death, since it’s been bringing up a lot of my own struggles with suicidal thoughts. I love you so much and I hope you’re able to talk about it with your therapist and other people who can help you through this.”
And while I don’t mean to discount what Anne or her roommate are going through right now, she’s already spoken to you at length about this almost once a day for the past two weeks—you’ve made yourself extremely available to her, and you’re not being a bad friend by setting a limit.
Q. Friendly ghost? I recently went on a date that was, well, fine. It definitely wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t good. I figured we’d either just move on or, at most, send a few polite texts, be too busy to meet up, and fade out. But the follow-up messages I’ve received made it clear that the person I went out with was much more into it than me. I tried to be pleasantly distant (saying, “I’m not sure we’re looking for the same thing here” followed by delayed, brief responses and no questions in return, etc.), but it’s clear that a fade-out approach isn’t going to work. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s kinder to be blunt and give a breakup speech or just ghost. Normally I’d go for the breakup, but after a single date, that feels extreme! Is there such thing as a friendly ghost? Or is honesty the best approach here?
A: You’ve been clear enough, I think, with the “I’m not sure we’re looking for the same thing” line that you can ghost with a clear conscience, as far as I’m concerned. But if the idea of doing so nags at you, then go ahead and send one last text: “I had a nice time with you the other night, but I didn’t feel a spark and I don’t want to go out again.” You don’t have to call and give an entire breakup speech to someone after a single date.
Q. Asexual dating conundrum: I’m an asexual panromantic woman who’s looking to get back in the dating game, probably by using a dating app. My worry is that people will assume that I’m on there looking to hook up or that sex is on the table in the near future, when really it’s something I’m averse to in most situations (and indifferent to in others) and would need to negotiate boundaries about. I definitely don’t want to lead with a lot of intimate information when I’m meeting someone for the first time, but I also don’t want potential partners to feel like I’m leading them on. Should I disclose that I’m asexual in my profile, or should I wait until I’ve gone on a date with someone? What is the etiquette for coming out to someone you’re starting a relationship with?
A: I would frame this disclosure less in terms of “leading someone on” and more in terms of making sure you only go out with people who are interested in what you have to offer. I don’t want you to have to deal with a lot of people who are, at best, willing to “put up” with your asexuality when you tell them about it; I want you to be able to go out with people who are actively excited about it, who consider it a feature, not a bug. I think it’s better to mention that you’re asexual in your profile and to do so in a way that communicates that this is a part of your personality you’re proud of and not trying to apologize or make excuses for. This may mean you go on slightly fewer dates, but it also means you’ll go on 100 percent fewer first dates where you have to deal with any surprised or disappointed reactions to your asexuality.
Mostly I want you to be able to find and date like-minded people without feeling like you need to lead with statements like “Well, I’m averse-to-indifferent about sex, but I guess I’d be willing to negotiate boundaries about it,” as if you feel the need to apologize for your asexuality or force yourself to agree to do things you don’t really want because you think it’s unreasonable to want to date while not also wanting to have sex. Lead with your asexuality, make it clear that you’re looking for people who are excited about that in a partner, and good luck!
Q. Re: Unmarried partner not invited to friend’s wedding: Your partner is your partner, not a plus-one. You’re a unit in these situations. When planning a wedding and the guest list, couples should determine their budget and how they can host a reception they can afford. Your friend is coming off less judgmental and more cheap!
A: Whether it’s overtly judgmental (you two aren’t married, so you’re not a real couple) or simply opportunistically judgmental (you two aren’t married, so we hope you won’t yell at us for treating you as two unrelated individuals) doesn’t make much of a difference to me; being willing to exploit their unmarried status to save a little money seems as effectively judgmental as if they’d said, “You two are just playing house.”
Either way, the letter writer is totally right to decline the invitation. If they’re normally close with this college friend, it might even be worth raising the issue—not to demand a second invitation at this late date, but to talk about why it was painful and try to figure out how to move past it as friends. But if it’s the kind of friendship where they get together as part of a group periodically but don’t spend much time one-on-one, I’d stick to just sending your regrets and downgrading the friendship to “polite acquaintance.”
Q. Secret queer office dating: My girlfriend and I (we are both bisexual women) have been dating for more than a year and are extremely happy. We met at work, and have continued to work in the same office throughout our relationship. While we are in the same department, neither of us are in any way each other’s supervisor, and our day-to-day jobs are basically entirely separate, except for attending a few of the same meetings. While we’re both public about our sexuality in the office, we’ve decided to keep our relationship mostly under wraps, partially for professionalism reasons and partially because we work in a very small industry where everyone knows each other. Dating someone else in the industry isn’t that uncommon, but it’s always a source of gossip, and I’m worried that our queer relationship would be even more under the microscope. We’ve told a few close work friends and a few people have guessed (our policy has been to never lie when asked point-blank), but it’s starting to feel weird that we’re keeping it a secret. I mean, we’re talking about moving in together eventually. There’s no way this is going to be able to be secret forever; it’s already a logistical nightmare. It also feels a little bit like being back in the closet, which I hate.
How do we handle this situation? I don’t want to make some big announcement (particularly because I’d rather the higher-ups in the office never know; they are oblivious so I doubt they would even know if we lived together), and I also don’t want anyone whom we haven’t told yet to be hurt that we didn’t trust them with the information. Do you think we even need to tell people? How do we proceed into a hopefully happy, long future together if we continue to work in the same place? Does one of us need to leave?
A: Congratulations on your wonderful romance! I think it’s pretty well-established at this point that I am very much team “No one at work needs to know about your personal life,” so I think you two have been extremely wise in deciding to keep your relationship under wraps. Obviously if it feels reminiscent of the closet, I don’t want to dismiss those feelings out of hand, but you say you’re both out as bisexual at work, that a few of your closer work friends already know, and that you never lie when asked about whom you’re seeing, so I really don’t think you two are being unusually circumspect.
I also don’t think it’s actually a secret! Maybe your friends have agreed not to mention it to anyone else, but that’s a pretty far cry from being a secret. And if a colleague ever said to me, “I’m hurt you didn’t trust me with the information about your romantic partner,” I’d think that was pretty weird and inappropriate—I don’t think you should worry about that possibility. The balance you two have struck together sounds really good. Even if everyone in the office knew you two were together, I wouldn’t advise you to be any more intimate or less professional with each other. If you two move in together or decide to share benefits, you may decide to disclose to HR and your direct supervisors, but otherwise I think you can let yourself off the hook. My one concern is that you describe your current arrangement as a “logistical nightmare”—if you two are going out of your way to avoid one another or not to be seen getting out of the same car in the parking lot, I hope you can drop the elaborate avoidance ritual and just stick to being friendly but non-demonstrative at work.
Q. Screaming toddler (not mine!): My husband and I own a split-level house. We had friends who unexpectedly needed housing, so we invited them to live downstairs, which has a bedroom, living room, and bathroom. They have an 18-month-old daughter who absolutely hates naptime. More days than not, she will scream for an hour or more in the bedroom.
When I was working during the day, this wasn’t a huge issue since I wasn’t around for it. A few weeks ago, however, I gave birth to my first child. I’m now on maternity leave and at home during the day, and her daily screaming has made it impossible for me to nap when my baby is sleeping. Her mom told me that a sleep consultant said the toddler is sleeping too much at night—which is why she won’t nap during the day—and to wake the toddler up early from nighttime sleep. But the mom refuses to wake the toddler up earlier in the morning, so the result is screaming naptimes. What do I do? Can I say anything? On the one hand, this falls into “Don’t question other parents on their choices for their kids!” category, but on the other, I’m exhausted.
A: This is one of the reasons I think it’s a good idea to have a lease agreement, even when you’re inviting friends in need to share your home—not just so you have a piece of paper you can use to throw someone out but a document that details what you owe one another, which you can all agree upon and refer to when conflict arises. You certainly have grounds to question their choices here, and you don’t have to just go through the mother—both parents are raising this child, even if the lion’s share of the child care falls to her, and you have reason to speak to both of them about it. “The hourlong screaming non-naps are making it impossible for me to rest and take care of my own child in the afternoon. I understand that kids make noise and it’s not possible to have total silence, but this isn’t working for us. Let’s talk about our other options.”
Q. Re: Friendly ghost? Continuing to text and try to make contact with someone you barely know who doesn’t respond may begin to cross the line into harassment or even stalking. If it continues, the chatter should be firmer. Say that you don’t want any further contact, block the number, and then go to the police if it continues.
A: I don’t think there’s anything here to suggest that the police should get involved; obviously all stalking has to start somewhere, so I’m not claiming this guy might never cross the line from not-quite-getting-the-hint to outright harassment, merely that so far he hasn’t done anything beyond not picking up on an indirect clue. Hopefully a clear rejection convinces him to look elsewhere. If not, blocking is a great next step.
Q. Sleeping co-worker: I work in an open-office environment (desks, no cubicles or offices) and the guy who sits closest to me falls asleep a couple of times every day. The work is pretty dull and he’s not the only sleeper in the office, or even the worst offender. The sleeping doesn’t actually bother me, as I’m sure I spend an equivalent amount of time surfing the web.
The problem is that he demonstrates all the symptoms of sleep apnea. He will breathe very loudly and then seem to stop breathing altogether. After 30 to 40 seconds, he will suddenly jerk awake, only to start the process over again. It’s pretty unnerving for me to sit by him, but I am really more concerned about his health than my own comfort. What I am seeing and hearing can’t be good for him. Do I say something to him? He is a nice guy and we are friendly, but not really friends. It’s awkward enough to point out someone is sleeping at work (generally only the supervisors will do it) but to suggest a medical diagnosis for a co-worker seems like a big stretch.
A: I wouldn’t be surprised if what looks like classic sleep apnea is actually a symptom of sleeping sitting up in an office chair. So if you don’t say anything and cultivate an air of “Yeah, well, what are you gonna do,” I don’t think you need to worry that you’re abandoning your colleague to a lifetime of medical distress. But if your conscience keeps plaguing you and you two are otherwise friendly (and you make it clear you genuinely don’t care that he sleeps at work), then sure, I think you can say, “This may sound weird, but did you know that you often struggle to breathe when you’re sleeping? It might be sleep apnea and it’s worth checking out,” followed by an assurance that you’re not going to harangue him about it and he’s free to do whatever he will with that information.
Q. Re: Mom in denial: I work in health care and help care for the sickest of the sick. The situation that the daughter finds herself is not that uncommon. We often see husbands get sick first (usually because of an age difference). Sometimes the wife (and rest of the family) accepts the inevitable (if it’s a terminal situation); however, many times we see the spouse in denial, and what this leads to is days, weeks, and sometimes months of “futile care.”
I can see this happening in the daughter’s situation, and she is powerless to stop anything the mother wants to do regarding the father’s health care. My advice to the daughter would be to ask for a meeting with the father’s physician and ask the doctor to explain the situation in layman’s terms (with the father present). Failing that, the daughter should motivate the father, in the strongest way possible, to complete his advance directive regarding his health care. Although not legally binding, it can help families make decisions. As you can probably tell, this is a “soapbox” issue for me as I see so many terminal and dying patients being kept alive by artificial means because the family cannot let go (and physicians will defer to the next of kin every time).
A: Thank you so much for this. I hope the letter writer sees this, and that other readers who think this might someday be them will be motivated to have these difficult conversations before someone they love falls into crisis.
Q. Re: Mom in denial: Thank you so much for sharing this information. The rest of my family were all in the camp that it was ESSENTIAL to be absolutely positive and upbeat about my dad’s possibility of recovery. The doctors and I seemed to be the only ones who understood that Dad’s situation might worsen. He actually did pass on March 5, and I have spent some time worrying that I was unable to provide enough positivity and/or assistance to help him get well (because of my sisters’ inability to accept the possibility of death/wanting second opinions/wanting to change his care drastically, and all that comes when someone is in denial, in my opinion).
I appreciate the comment so much from this health care professional, as it tells me that I understood things and am not a terrible person for it. My mom actually did change and accepted my dad’s condition better after a heart-to-heart with a palliative care doctor in his final days. You do make a big difference, thank you. I miss him terribly but at least I can be assured that it was his time to go.
A: Thank you so much for this update—I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I’m glad that this comment was helpful in reminding you that you are not a terrible person for wanting to be prepared for the worst. It can be unimaginably painful to entertain the idea of losing someone you love, such that many people feel like it’s a betrayal to even discuss the possibility of someone dying. I’m so glad the palliative care doctor was able to help your mother figure out how best to care for your father in his last days, and I hope you have a lot of people in your corner offering you their support as you mourn.
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From Ask a Teacher
My fourth-grade daughter is a joy to be around, a good friend, and a well-behaved student. She loves to read and write, does her homework willingly, and has a great imagination. But she is a terrible speller. Honestly, we haven’t put much effort into it. When she has tests at school, she typically gets about half the words right, and we don’t make a fuss about it, knowing she just isn’t great at straight-up memorization. She struggles with math facts, too, but she’s developed strategies to deal with that. This morning, she told me that she doesn’t like Fridays because it is spelling test day, but that once the test is over, her day is fine. So it is weighing on her. What can I do to help her? Is there any way to make those spelling words stick?
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