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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Our daughter’s choices: We recently found out our (adult) teenage daughter has dropped out of school and quit her part-time job to do online sex work. Naturally we’re not thrilled about this, but she likes to push our buttons and we know that if we object, it’ll just drive her even more. This wasn’t from some strong desire to do sex work on her part—she’s very lazy and wanted to make money without having to show up for a job everyday. For a while she was using her real name in the pictures and videos, and a quick Google search of just her name pulls them up easily (her face is visible). Recently, her relatives (aunts and uncles, grandparents, family friends) have been asking about her and our other kids, how they’re doing, and how our daughter’s doing in school. We’ve managed to tell them she’s not in school anymore, but they ask why and what she’s doing for work, and that’s where we get stuck. The last few times we were asked, we made a quick excuse to get off the phone, but I know it’s going to come up again. Our daughter begged us to not tell our family, but I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. On top of that, we’re pretty ashamed of our daughter’s choice and feel like we’re bad parents. My partner says we have to tell them and they’re going to find out eventually. I’m torn. What do we do?
A: You do not “have to” out your daughter’s work to your relatives, even if that work is easily accessible by search engine. “She’s doing freelance work online” is a perfectly acceptable answer. You can, if you like, talk to your friends about how you’re going through a rough patch in your relationship with her, that you feel shut out from her decision-making process, and that you struggle in finding ways to relate to her. You can even talk to a therapist about these things. They’re real and difficult, and you have a right to seek support as you figure out how to love your child who’s pulling away in young adulthood and making choices that are hard for you to deal with. But outing her could not only put her at risk—it might also make a future relationship with her impossible.
You don’t have to like her choices or agree with them. But outing her will not get you any of the things that you want: It won’t convince her to go back to school, it won’t facilitate mutual trust and respect, and it won’t contribute to her safety or well-being.
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Q. In a relationship with an expiration date: My boyfriend and I (both 23) have been dating for the past nine months. This is my first relationship and the first time I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in love. We both knew our stance on marriage and kids since we first started dating, but because I was in the middle of my Hot Girl Summer when I met my current boyfriend, I was totally fine with just casually dating to finally experience what that’s like and at least have fun and connect with people in a sexual and/or dating context. He does not want to get married and have kids, while I do. His parents have been divorced since he was 12 or 13 and he was unable to grow up witnessing a healthy and happy long-term marriage, so he fears he’ll get stuck in an unhappy loveless marriage or end up having to give half his money to a woman who would benefit from a system that favors children going with the mother if a divorce ever happens.
We both agreed to just not think of the future and give it our all in the meantime. Lately it’s been harder to not think about the expiration date for our relationship. I’m worried that later on I won’t be giving it my all the way I still can do right now. Or worse, spiral into a deep, severe depression as a result of not being able to move on because I can only picture being with him. We are so compatible in every single way except for that discrepancy. A huge one unfortunately. I do not want to prematurely end the relationship (not my style). I just want to be able to enjoy the love we have, appreciate my boyfriend, and truly give it my all before our inevitable end. And also avoid being absolutely destroyed when that time comes.
A: It would be one thing if you felt you were up to really enjoying this relationship for as long as you can. But you say it’s been getting harder and harder not to think about it, that you worry about spiraling into a “deep, severe depression” over this “huge” discrepancy, and that you fear being “absolutely destroyed” if you two keep dating. It’s also a little concerning that he believes his parents’ divorce means it’s impossible for him to establish a healthy, loving romantic relationship as an adult, and that the idea of the mother of his hypothetical children receiving child support in the event of a divorce would be a “benefit” rather than a necessity for, you know, raising children. It’s not a great sign that he can only anticipate such an antagonistic result and not even the possibility of an amicable, mutually respectful co-parenting relationship.
You want kids; he doesn’t. When he does think about kids, he imagines conflict, aversion, being forced to part with “his” money, and greedy, unscrupulous women. When you imagine staying with him and not getting married or having children, you picture total devastation and deep despair. It’s already hard for you to stop thinking about these things—I don’t think it’s at all premature to end this relationship and to look for someone else with whom you have more in common.
Q. Nothing else to offer: I’m a Black person in an academic health care setting, and we often discuss bits of our personal life. For a recent example, if someone is pregnant, people often discuss how their latest antenatal care appointment went. I am nearly always the only Black person in meetings. With the BLM protests, colleagues want to check in with me, and I often feel too overwhelmed to distill my thoughts honestly and politely, so I’ve said very little so far. I have attended protests, work on health equity projects, and serve in diversity leadership roles. The conversations they seem to want are personal (e.g., not related to our actual projects), but between the structural upheaval, professional upheaval of COVID-19, and unrelated personal loss, I truly have no more bandwidth. What is a script that essentially says “Please don’t discuss this with me,” but doesn’t preclude future personal anecdotes? I’m not upset they’re checking in with me, but I need a break from discussing my personal life in an all-white setting.
A: I think you’ve developed a pretty thorough script in your own letter already: “I’m dealing with a lot right now and need to take a break from heavy personal conversations [about Black Lives Matter protests, COVID-19, police brutality, your own recent loss] at work. I appreciate that you’re looking to be supportive—the best way you can support me right now is to give me some space. I’ll let you know when or if I’m feeling up to resuming such conversations later, but right now, I’d rather talk about work or something fairly light.”
You can also just say “I can’t talk about X right now” without making promises about your availability for future personal conversations about racism at work or hastening to reassure your white colleagues that you know they mean well, that they haven’t done anything wrong, etc. It’s perfectly polite, and perfectly professional, to simply decline a request for a personal conversation, and you don’t have to carefully couch this boundary in order to establish it for yourself.
Q. I can’t stop boning my friend in my dreams: I worked closely with a friend,”Harry,” for a number of years and developed a major crush on him. I’m also happily married to “Jay.” This past year, Harry was reassigned, so we saw less of each other, and now that COVID has hit, I haven’t seen him in person in months, although we have socialized virtually a few times. I used to occasionally have sexual dreams about Harry, but it seems like they’re happening all the time now. We haven’t kept in close contact since we moved to remote work, so maybe I just miss him. Jay is aware of my crush and isn’t concerned by it, but I don’t think he wants to hear about what Harry and I are doing in my head. But I feel weird keeping this from him, and I also feel like there has to be a reason why I’m having these dreams all the time now. Maybe if I talked about this, I could figure out the reason why they’re happening. Should I talk to Jay? Should I try connecting with Harry more and see if the dreams go away? As much as I delight in the occasional fantasy, I have not acted and will not act on my crush on Harry.
A: It doesn’t surprise me at all that you’re dreaming vividly about exciting, in-person contact with someone who intrigues you during a pandemic during which you’re barely able to see anyone outside of your partner. I don’t think dreams are an exact one-to-one representation of literal, straightforward desires or intentions—nor are dreams something you have to take ethical responsibility for. If you want to start keeping a dream journal or writing down some of the thoughts/judgments/interests/curiosities these dreams provoke for you, then you might find that of interest, but you’re certainly under no obligation to do so, nor do you have to “do” anything in response to these dreams. I personally come down somewhere in the middle between “Dreams are meaningless, ignore them” and “Only dreams tell us what we really want and feel—do whatever your dreams tell you to do.” If your goal is to “figure out the reason why” you dream the way you do, you may be at it for a long, long time. There’s no single established reason for dreaming or for assembling meaning or structure out of dreams; you really do have the freedom to make meaning for yourself.
Q. Marrying Mary: Mary was my college roommate, my maid of honor, and the person who held me up when the police came to tell my husband was dead. There is no one I love or trust more. She is asexual, and I buried the only man I wanted to be with. We are both closer to 40 than 30. I don’t want kids. We are considering getting married for reasons of property and health care and have gotten nothing but flack from our families. Maybe I will meet my mythical soulmate at 41, but everyone in my family is on marriage No. 2 or No 3. with various traumatized children in tow. The world will survive me not being a mother, and it hurts that the people I love can’t be happy for me. Mary lived with me while I was married and stood by me while I buried my husband. I would not be alive if it weren’t for her.
I don’t understand why my sisters harp on sex when their own marriages died because they had kids and didn’t want to have sex with their husbands anymore. Not to be cliché, but batteries are better than any boyfriend might be. I know Mary will care for me if I get hurt, and I trust her with everything. I am going to marry her, but it hurts that my family can’t accept my life. Part of me wants to “come out” as gay so they have a script to follow. Our brother did and everyone is happy for him. I know I am not the norm, but I am not stupid or “crazy.”
A: I’m sorry your family can’t be happy for you. Mary sounds like a remarkable person, and the bond the two of you have is rare and precious. I don’t know that you have to “come out” in order to justify this relationship to your family, but there does seem to be room to discuss the nonlogistical reasons for getting married. You say you’re thinking about getting married “for reasons of property and health care,” but there’s so much more to it than that: You love Mary more than you love anyone else in the world. You trust her with everything. You’re committed to caring for each other in both sickness and in health. You see eye to eye about the question of having children. You’re sexually compatible. You’ve known each other for years; you’ve lived together; you’ve stood by each other through the bleakest, most painful moments of your lives; you want to continue building a life together. Those are wonderful, profound, emotionally meaningful reasons to marry someone, and I think you should stress those alongside your desire for legal protection when it comes to health care and property: “I don’t want to marry some imaginary man I may or may not meet someday. I want to marry Mary. She makes me happy. This makes me happy. I hope you can find a way to be happy for me, but if you can’t, please keep it to yourselves.”
If they persist, it may help to remind them this: “I’m not going to choose to get married on the basis of what type or frequency of sex my relatives think I should be having. I’m going to make that decision with my own best interests and personal happiness in mind.”
Q. My boyfriend purchased a home without telling me: My boyfriend of two years, who is separated (not yet divorced), purchased a home recently without letting me know. We’ve talked about home purchasing together but never settled on anything definite. He’s not moving in with his children, just himself. Should I be upset that he didn’t include me in the decision-making? I’m not contributing anything from a financial perspective. I’m also concerned that when his divorce is final he will lose the home that I may invest in from a decorative perspective.
A: Is your boyfriend interested in letting you “invest” in his new home, either from a decorating perspective or any other? It doesn’t sound like he wants you to move in with him or have much to do with the place at all, so I’m curious where you’re getting the idea that you’re going to be helping him with interior design. The question of whether his soon-to-be-ex has any claim on this purchase is a question best answered by his lawyer rather than you or me. But you can (and should!) ask him what changed between your last open-ended conversation about possibly buying a home together someday and his recent decision to buy one himself. I don’t think you can assume he’s looking for your input here. And while that doesn’t mean you can’t keep dating happily—plenty of couples don’t live together or make all financial decisions jointly—it’s certainly odd that he didn’t say anything about buying a house on his own the last time you two spoke about homebuying. Now’s the time to ask what’s going on, and to get on the same page.
Q. Is it OK to tell my sister to let go of the deceased love of [her] life? When my sister was 19 she started dating an acquaintance of my brother’s named Joe. He was several years older than her, and for many reasons my parents didn’t approve. Because of this, he broke things off with my sister (but never told her the reasons), and it broke her heart. Years later, she came into contact with him and he explained his reasons and that he had always loved her. She felt the same. She had always felt that he was truly the one that got away. My sister was engaged at the time and planned a trip to go “visit” Joe, but my family and her fiancé found out about it and talked her out of it. My sister married her fiancé, and a year and a half ago started having an affair with Joe. Her husband found out, and they are still in the midst of a messy divorce. My former brother-in-law is not a good man: He verbally and mentally abused my sister severely. While I don’t condone the affair, I understand why she did it. After the initial separation from her husband, my sister was happily planning to be with Joe, the love of her life, after all these years. Then Joe suddenly died. She believes she was the last person to speak with him.
She was absolutely devastated and told me several times that if it weren’t for her daughter, she would have taken her own life. My family never liked Joe and saw him as a bum and a liar and a cheater, so while trying to be sensitive, they weren’t exactly upset that he was out of the picture. Now, almost two years later, my sister is seemingly doing much better overall. She has her own place with her daughter and is currently in a loving, supportive relationship with my good friend. But I have grown increasingly more concerned about her mental state. She has multiple “mourning” days a year. The last time she saw Joe, the last day they had sex, the last day he spoke, the day he died, etc. Shortly after she got together with my friend, she said one of the things she loved about him was how he reminded her of Joe. Her birthday was the other day, and I bought her an orchid. She absolutely loved it and secretly confided in me afterward that it was Joe’s favorite flower and it was absolutely “perfect.” She sent me a Snapchat the other day saying she named the plant after Joe’s last name. I have begged my sister to go to therapy or any type of counseling and she refuses. I am scared for her, and I am her only confidant, the only person she trusts in our family. How do I tell my sister that she needs to move on and get help?
A: I understand why you think therapy, particularly grief counseling, would be helpful for your sister. I think it would be, too. But I don’t think she needs to move on—or, rather, I don’t think you and I share a working definition of what “moving on” necessarily looks like. She’s living independently, caring for her daughter, and (in your own words) in a “loving, supportive relationship” with someone who shares many of Joe’s good qualities. She also mourns the loss of a man she deeply loved, a man she was separated from for many years while she was in an abusive marriage and who died shortly after they reconciled. That makes a great deal of sense to me. Keeping a flower that reminds her of him, setting aside a few days out of the year to acknowledge and grieve their relationship and to honor his memory—none of that strikes me as dangerous, or as unwarranted, or as any sort of barrier to her present health and flourishing. She doesn’t mistreat her current partner, nor has she tried to remake him in Joe’s image. You’ve made your case for therapy on multiple occasions, and I think it’s time to let go. Maybe she will go someday; maybe she won’t. But in the meantime, it sounds like she’s living a good life.
Q. Re: Our daughter’s choices: Hey, what happened to “You’re being asked to lie on someone else’s behalf, and you have every right to decline that request”? (See “Q. Am I unreasonable?” in Part 1 of the chat.) If the relatives ask what she’s doing, I’d just say something to the effect of “Don’t ask!” or “Let’s not go there. Lovely weather we’re having” or, if they persist, “You’re going to have to ask her about that!”
A: I think the differences between those two are pretty obvious, but I’ll bite regardless: In the first situation, the letter writer is being asked to keep an affair from a close friend of hers, which directly affects her and the commitment she’s made to her partner. In the second situation, the daughter is not cheating on anyone, and she’s also at risk of social censure, stigmatization, and criminal charges if she’s outed. That said, I agree that “Don’t ask,” or “I don’t want to talk about it” is also fine, and that the letter writer should feel free to speak honestly, if vaguely, about their daughter’s work. They do not have to come up with a plausible cover story if they’re uncomfortable doing so. Thank you for suggesting it; I should have included that as an option in my original answer.
Q. Re: Our daughter’s choices: If you and your daughter are concerned about her having used her real name in some of these videos, you could offer to (help) pay for an online reputation management company. They help sanitize what comes up when you enter her name into various social media and search engines so that her past (or the past of a different person with the same name!) doesn’t hurt job prospects in the future. This will also help her preserve her privacy.
A: I think that’s a good idea in principle, although I don’t know whether the letter writer’s daughter would be available for that kind of conversation with her parents. There’s a reason people often adopt professional names for sex work that’s not tied to civilian life, but I’m not sure the relationship between the letter writer and their daughter is solid enough right now for them to have that conversation. I also don’t want the letter writer to feel like they have to manage this for their daughter or offer assistance she doesn’t seem to want from them (and that they’re not sure they want to give). If they’re feeling up for it, they might raise the issue once and encourage her to consider preserving a degree of privacy or self-protection when it comes to her work. But mostly what I want for the letter writer right now is the freedom to deal with their own feelings of frustration, distance, rejection, and anxieties in a safe, confidential context.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your help, everyone—see you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. How do I convince my son I still love him when he’s been taken away from me? What hurts the most is not being able to talk to my son in a realistic way. I’m afraid he’s beginning to feel that I’ve given up on him. He will never know how hard I am trying and how much I miss him. These years will be filled in his head with bitterness and anger toward me, not understanding that it’s beyond my control. And I can never tell him how much I blame his dad. The one time I told him that I was trying very hard to get to see him more often and that I was scheduled to ask the court in just a few weeks, his dad jumped all over me. Read more and see what Carvell Wallace had to say.
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