Episodes We Love: Inbox Outliers

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Infidelity. In-Laws. Friendship. These are just a few of the categories that help keep the Dear Sugar inbox organized. But every once in a while, we get a letter that doesn't fit neatly into any category.

This week, the Sugars discuss a handful of those letters in rapid-fire fashion — from a woman whose mother-in-law might be faking an allergy to her cat, to a woman whose identity was her own sister.

This episode was originally published on April 25th, 2017.

Dear Sugars,

I found out that my younger sister gave my name when she got a ticket for an illegal U-turn two years ago and that my entire family covered it up. I've always been proud of my clean driving record, so I didn't think I'd have any problem passing a motor vehicle background check in order to volunteer to help refugees acclimate to my city by driving them to the library, etc. I got an email today stating that I had failed due to two moving violations.

I thought it was a mistake, and immediately called my dad for advice on how to correct this. When he paused for a bit too long, I knew something was wrong. He said, "I didn't think we'd have to tell you this,” and explained that my sister had given my name when she got a ticket two years ago and that my parents had decided that was an acceptable thing to do, and as long as she never told me, it would all be okay. To make matters worse, there is also a speeding ticket that was given four days after the U-turn that she won't own up to either.

I’m so hurt that my family lied to protect my sister, and didn't think about what the lie would do to me. They think I'm making too big a deal out of this and should drop it, but I feel betrayed. My mom and sister are two people I trust more than anything, and to know they've lied about this makes my stomach churn. They don't seem to understand how I feel. I've barely gotten an apology from them.  Am I in the wrong here for making a big deal out of this? How can I move past it?


Stolen Identity

Cheryl Strayed: Stolen Identity, you are not wrong to make a big deal out of this. This is so absurd, it’s almost beyond belief. It’s so strange to me that your parents would want to protect your sister at your expense. Your family needs to make it right as quickly as possible, whether that means that you get an apology from them, or that they fess up to the authorities and your sister deals with the consequences. At the bare minimum, they need to take this seriously, and stop enabling your sister, who is committing crimes that you are the victim of. It’s absolutely wrong.

Steve Almond: This isn’t just about protecting your own interests, it’s about making sure your parents and sister don’t keep playing out a pattern that is ultimately going to screw your sister over. It’s deeply unhealthy, and you need to let your family know that in no uncertain terms.

Dear Sugars,

My boyfriend and I had our first baby last month, and now I'm fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home mom to our beautiful 7-week-old boy. Since getting pregnant, we've discussed getting married, and we decided we should get engaged.

A few days ago, I came across a ring-sized box my boyfriend was obviously planning on giving me. It had the name of a company on it, and I immediately Googled it out of curiosity. I was taken aback when I found that this company sells cubic zirconia rings that cost about $20. So I did something that I now regret — I peeked inside the box. It was an engagement ring and wedding ring set that I saw on the website costs $20.99.

I'm both upset and baffled by this, because my boyfriend is not one to be cheap when it comes to jewelry. I'd shown him a ring that I wanted, which cost around $300. I thought that was fairly inexpensive for an engagement ring.

So here's my question: Do I say something to him about it when he gives it to me? I'm truly hurt that he would be so cheap when it comes to such an important moment. Then again, I don't want to be shallow, and I'm incredibly grateful for our life together. I'm lucky to have such a great partner. The ring itself is fine, and actually pretty, but it's not really what I wanted.


Speak Now or Forever Hold My Peace?

Cheryl: Speak Now or Forever Hold My Peace, you’re not being shallow by telling your boyfriend that he made a mistake. I don’t think he meant to hurt your feelings, but I think he was wrong to give you a ring that cost less than $21.  I would sit him down and say, “I’m so touched that you gave me this ring, but it is not what I had in mind. It’s important to me that I look down at my hand for the rest of my life and feel nothing but love and joy and gratitude for this bond that we have, and this ring makes me feel bad.” It matters that you love the ring, and I think you just need to have that complicated, painful conversation with him. He may be defensive or hurt, but ultimately, I think you guys will come out the other side of it with an understanding. And then you can go out together and get the ring that you want at the budget that feels right to you. And you can use this as one of the many times in your marriage that you are going to have to have difficult conversations where one of you will have to tell the other, “I’m disappointed in you.”

Dear Sugars,

I am a 24 year-old man in a rather unique conundrum.  I have a chosen family that began when a friend took me home for a winter break during college. Now, four years later, I consider that friend my brother, and his mother to be my mother.  She has given me a place to call home and a relationship that feels like the one most of my peers have with their parents — complete with phone calls, holidays, advice and chores when I'm at home. She provides both emotional and logistical support that I don't and didn't receive from my parents of origin.

My conundrum is that my biological parents are still living. My friends and my therapists have described my relationship with them as "bizarre," "neglectful," and "emotionally abusive." They aren't willing to do any work--emotional or otherwise--to be in a relationship with me.  

My parents of origin don’t know that I call someone else my mother. They don’t know that I call some place else my home.

I am now considering going through a legal adoption process. My chosen mother is perfectly accepting of my decision either way. There are many reasons why I would like to go through with it — personal, emotional, legal, as well as logistical. The only reason I wouldn't is that I would have to notify any living biological parents of the adoption.

I’d very much like to be legally bound to my chosen family, and I don't think I’d lose anything by severing ties with my biological family. But I would be doing something very cruel to my parents of origin, even though that's not my reason for wanting to do it.  I don’t know if I can justify telling someone that the child they had is no longer theirs. The benefits of going through with the adoption would be excellent and sensible, especially because it would provide closure. But I've been stuck for months now on whether or not to do it. Do you have any advice for me?


Potential Adult Adoptee

Cheryl: Potential Adult Adoptee, why do you really want to do this? You say several times that there would be many benefits, but as a 24-year-old, I think that those benefits would be quite limited in legal terms. At that age, parents aren’t responsible for their children. If this adoption is about emotional closure, my recommendation would be to keep the legal system out of it.

Steve: You say you want this for closure, but I think it’s going to open up a deep wound. I think you want to do that, because there’s a part of you that’s angry and disappointed at your parents for not having been the parents you wanted or deserved. I think that’s what you need to mourn and reckon with.

Cheryl: So many people I know have “chosen families.” None of them have been legally adopted by anyone else, and that doesn’t diminish or amplify their connection. It isn’t about who you belong to, but the sense of family and community that you create.

Dear Sugars,

I have been so blessed to find the most compassionate, loving, thoughtful, sexy, amazing man who loves me as much as I love and adore him. We’re engaged to be married. We are incredibly happy together and have loved making a home with our three dogs.

My fiancé is a widower, and while he has been through an incredible heartache, he has survived and is ready to move forward with his life.

Our problem? My fiancé 's late wife's family — specifically, her mother. She seems to feel that if I take her son-in-law away, the reality of her daughter’s death will land. I’ve attended family weddings, holidays, and other gatherings to support my fiancé , and while I know his family likes me, it’s understandable that they’ve had a difficult time getting to know me. We are constantly bombarded with reminders of my fiancé 's late wife, which is bothersome to him and agitates me. My fiancé’s late wife’s mother regularly delivers flowers to our house in memorial to her daughter, and there are constant Facebook posts and other such things done without warning. She has made comments to me suggesting that I am essentially the “other woman.” This is frustrating and offensive, as my fiancé has chosen to move forward with his life and has chosen me as his partner.

My fiancé does not feel he can say anything about this out of respect for a mother that lost her daughter. I certainly feel that I have no place in it. However, we spend so much of our time discussing this. It’s difficult to move forward when my fiancé keeps being pushed into the past. We’ve had much conversation and contemplation, and a fair amount of tears, but I want to find a solution that will satisfy both of us. Some fresh thoughts would be much appreciated.


The Widower's Fiancé

Steve: Widower’s Fiancé , this mother is grieving her daughter, and she’s taking out her anger on you. That’s not fair. But it’s also all she can do to express her grief, rage, and bewilderment at this event. I think this is something that’s ramping up around the engagement and the wedding, and I think it will dissipate when you’re married. But in the meantime, I think you may want to talk with a counselor about this issue before you get married, because it’s not just your fiancé ’s late wife’s mother who might have unrequited feelings that need to be brought into the light.

Cheryl: When my mother died, my stepfather quickly began dating another woman. It was excruciatingly painful to me, because I felt like my mother was being replaced. Even though my stepfather said, “Of course she’s not being replaced. I love your mother and I always will.” I told him, “I know that. But you can find another wife, and I can’t find another mother.” Your fiancé’s mother-in-law feels that you are replacing her daughter, and it’s crushing her. I think you should encourage your fiancé to talk to her.  I think there’s something about the two of them coming together and having an honest conversation, and enlisting the mother-in-law to help him through his grief while he helps her through hers.

Dear Sugars,

Years ago, I had an affair with a man I used to work with, but who lived in a different city. We were both married but always felt an attraction to each other. I knew him before I met my husband. When work brought him to town, we'd meet up for an evening, and we talked often by phone. You wouldn't describe it as torrid. We never spoke of leaving our spouses. We had an easy connection that, over time, mellowed into a long-distance love and remained a cherished, secret, friendship. He was blunt and honest, a coach when I needed to take risks in my life and career. We talked frequently but could go weeks between calls and fall right into comfortable conversation.

Four months ago, he passed away unexpectedly. I found out weeks afterwards. After a few calls to his office went unreturned. I emailed his office account and received a short reply from his secretary with a copy of his obituary. I was shocked, completely unprepared, and unable to react out loud. Nobody in my life, or his, knew of our relationship, and I have no one to talk to or cry with, no way to process it. I don't even know what happened.  To my knowledge, his wife and family know nothing of me, and that's how it must stay.

But I am alone in this. His death feels like it didn't happen, though it hits me at odd times. I catch myself dialing his number. I hear a certain song and stifle a sob. I've kept my feelings hidden, but my husband tells me I've been tossing and turning at night. How do I manage this secret grief? How do I mourn someone who wasn't supposed to be mine?


Grieving Ghost

Cheryl: It’s unique to have a relationship that’s separate from everything and everyone else in your life. I think you would benefit from seeing a grief counselor, where you can openly share your feelings about the relationship without revealing the affair to your spouse or anyone in your dead lover’s life. You’re probably always going to feel a little bit unresolved about this relationship, but there are ways for you to at least come to some peace.

Steve: I think there’s some significance to the fact that you’re tossing and turning in your marital bed, because there’s also the reality that you went outside of the marriage to find something that wasn’t in your marriage. I’m not suggesting that you have to talk about this with your husband, but you do have to sort out really complicated feelings, and you should not have to be alone in this.

Dear Sugars,

I'm married to a wonderful man. We have one son, age 22 months, and a baby girl on the way. My problem is with his mother. His mom has had a severe pet allergy for the past 20 years.  Despite this, she refuses to use an inhaler because of the side effects, and instead relies on vitamins that her herbalist recommends.

I’ve had a cat for eight years — longer than I've known my husband. When I moved in with my husband, he was happy to welcome the cat, but his mother made it known how unhappy she was.

It’s been three years since, and the cat issue is driving a wedge between my husband and me. I can't find the cat a new home, though I’ve tried. My husband appreciated the effort at first, but now he seems impatient.

Here's what I don't get about this situation, and it's so frustrating: my mother in law has been in the same room as my cat without any allergic reactions. Not even a cough or strained voice. She didn't know the cat was there or recently there. Her allergies seem to be more of a mental health issue than a current medical condition. She refuses to listen to anyone who tries to talk to her about it. Her family enables the behavior so they don't have to deal with her drama.

My husband agrees this situation is frustrating, but he doesn't empathize with my feelings — specifically, that I feel like I'm forced to give up my beloved pet to appease his mother.

I love how she treats my son, her grandson, but I hate how she berates her son, my husband, seemingly punishing him for marrying someone with a cat. I hate that this has become such an issue in our marriage. I know that if it's not the cat, she'll have some sort of other issue with me that will become a problem.

What do I do? Am I the problem for not wanting to get rid of my cat so my mother-in-law can come over for occasional dinners? I know my husband is more important than my cat, as are my children, but I resent that my mother in law won't even try to tolerate my home. I am so angry about this that it may take years of counseling to get over the resentment I have toward her.


Cat conundrum

Steve: Cat conundrum, it’s not about the cat. When you say, “I know that if it's not the cat, she'll have some sort of other issue with me that will become a problem,” that’s your first clue that the cat is the pre-text here. You have a mother-in-law who is overly involved in her son’s life. She is using the cat as a way of picking a fight with you. You need to, in a friendly but firm way, stake out your own territory and say, our house is our house.

Cheryl: You have two conundrums — a problem with your mother-in-law and a problem with your husband. You do not have a problem with your cat. You get to have a pet in your home if you want to. I would lay down the law with your mother-in-law. Say what needs to be said in a gentle but firm way. I think the bigger issue is your husband. It sounds as though he has had many years of being in a codependent relationship with his mother, appeasing her when it doesn’t make sense. I think you and your husband need to, once and for all, resolve this issue with the cats. Maybe if he spends more time focusing on his relationship with his mother, she will feel less angry about you and your cat coming between them.

Steve: So in summary — the cat stays. The mother-in law goes.

Cheryl: Don’t surrender all of your joy for an angry lady who doesn't like cats.


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