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Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My partner eats like a child: My partner and I (both male) have been together for two years. He’s wonderful and I love him immensely. His family went through a rough patch when he was a kid; his parents could no longer take care of him, so he lived with an aunt until he was 10 years old. In that time he suffered from a variety of behavior disorders and underwent intensive therapy. He’s pretty much fine now: loving, caring, attentive, socially intelligent. The one “leftover” from this tumultuous childhood is his eating habits. His aunt fed him a steady diet of chicken fingers, pizza bagels, and spaghetti without sauce. He maintained this diet through college and up till now. We live together but it’s not an issue in our individual meals. The problems arise when we cook for each other or eat out (at a restaurant or someone else’s home). He always orders off the kids’ menu and frequently refuses to try a restaurant that doesn’t serve American food. At someone’s home, he’ll pick at his meal until the host realizes he’s not eating, kicking off a painfully awkward back-and-forth in which he tries to explain it’s nothing personal or related to the host’s cooking. I’ve started dreading eating with him anywhere that’s not our home. We would like to have children someday, and I absolutely will not raise children who grow into adults and still eat like this. It’s unhealthy and limiting in life opportunities—I want my kids to be able to try new foods, experience different cultural culinary traditions, all the things my partner can’t do. What’s the best approach here? I’ve tried talking, cajoling, “sneaking” spinach into smoothies, and everything under the sun, and all that results in is a sullen partner who tried some broccoli and sulked for hours afterward. Would I be ridiculous for suggesting therapy to overcome this food aversion? I know it’s rooted in the childhood trauma he experienced, but I would hate for the trauma to dictate the rest of his life.
A: I think if you’re planning on having children, you can reasonably set a goal like “I’ll give my kids a variety of foods and encourage them to eat adventurously.” But “I will not raise children who become adults with narrow palates” isn’t entirely within your ability to control. You might set a great example and encourage them at every opportunity and still end up producing a picky adult eater, because kids aren’t automatons but human beings with wills, preferences, habits (good, bad, and neutral), aversions, sensory issues, and tastes of their own. You’ve discovered a pretty thorough list of approaches that don’t work, so I hope you give up cajoling and secretly feeding your partner food he doesn’t want right away, and for good. Your frustration when your husband’s pickiness makes your friends feel anxious about their hosting is understandable, but I think the most you can do there is encourage him to be clear and polite with his hosts before sitting down to dinner, rather than trying to run interference on his behalf. If it becomes truly unbearable, you might decide to hold off on accepting dinner party invitations together for a while (not that I imagine anyone’s throwing many dinner parties right now).
Therapy might be really helpful for your partner when it comes to his food aversion. Or it might not be. It also might be helpful for him in a way that never changed his palate. Would you consider it a successful therapeutic outcome if he maintained his current diet but felt more freedom and comfort explaining it to friends and hosts? Or are you looking for an outside authority figure to “fix” your husband’s palate on your behalf? If it’s the latter, I think you should hold off on making any recommendations and focus on letting go of control over your husband’s eating.
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Q. Road trip? I’m preparing for a minireunion this weekend with my three best friends. I was stoked about it as a chance for normalcy and connection. On top of the pandemic getting everyone down, I’ve been dealing with infertility for almost a year. It’s been weighing one me and I was looking forward to the chance to relax and possibly commiserate with my closest friends. But now one of the friends has told me she’s pregnant. She just started trying before the trip. (I don’t understand why, and it’s another thing that’s bothering me, even though I can’t and shouldn’t want to control her reproductive choices.) She’s being really sensitive and trying to be kind, but I just don’t think I can take the trip and truly have a good time. It feels wrong to cancel on my friends, and I don’t want to make her feel badly because a good thing is happening for her … but I’m jealous, sad, hurt. Just so many emotions and not all of them reasonable. Can I ditch the trip? Or am I setting myself up for losing friends left and right if I can’t stand to be around pregnant people?
A: Avoiding pregnant people forever would be a pretty tall order, and it’d unlikely to result in the kind of healing or peaceful neutrality I think you’re hoping for. But deciding not to take one trip this week is not the same thing as dedicating yourself to never spending alone time with a pregnant person or a new parent. And at the risk of sounding overly cautious, you have excellent health and safety reasons to want to hold off on a road trip with people you don’t live with. Can you imagine sharing something like this with your friend? “You’ve been so supportive about my struggles with infertility, and your sensitivity has meant a lot to me. I’ve felt self-conscious about saying so, but it’s too soon for me to go on this road trip together. I want to be able to celebrate your pregnancy with you—I know intellectually that your pregnancy doesn’t have anything to do with me, but I’m having a difficult time right now and I want to be able to process some of my grief on my own. I’m sorry to do this on short notice, but I think it’s best if we catch up over the phone or meet for a walk after the road trip.” Spend that time journaling, finding meetings for people dealing with infertility, looking for a therapist you really like, anything that provides you with a confidential, non-judgmental outlet for your pain and jealousy. Maintaining relationships with the people you love, even if their pregnancies remind you of great grief, is crucial and well worth the investment. Good luck.
Q. DNA test revealed parents were related—now what? I recently took a DNA test and gave one to my mother. My father has been deceased for 20 years. They were married for 30 years. I have learned that my parents were actually related: fourth cousins. I now have messages from cousins who are delighted to see that I have shown up in their “new relatives” list, and many have been able to immediately identify whose daughter I am. My mom put me in charge of her account since she’s not really into anything that requires a lot of tech. She can’t even turn the camera on her phone on to have a video call. She would be mortified to know she was fourth cousins with her husband. I have said things like, “Oh, these DNA tests will show that we’re all related to everyone if you think about it … everyone’s family.” In a way, that’s true. She had said once before—and I thought it was a joke—that as long as she doesn’t find out she and my father were related, she’s fine. But she was eager to take the test, and if she TRULY thought they were related, she would have refused to do it. To her, that would have been horrifying.
I feel like I’m supposed to do something with this information. Especially since I am the one in charge of her account and getting these messages from very eager genealogists who like to say exactly how she’s related to them. It’s also very strange to see the trees merging the way they are. I know, I know, I asked for this by being the one who willingly took the test. My mom had been talking about doing this for a while, so I thought I’d indulge her, and now I just don’t know what to do. I feel like she’s going to have a meltdown if she finds out the truth, but she’s also going to be angry if she finds out that I’ve withheld this info from her.
A: There’s something freeing about realizing there’s no choice that guarantees your mother won’t get upset with you. (I don’t want to be too hard on you for a decision you can’t take back, but I hope anyone reading this who was previously on the fence about ordering a “fun” DNA test for themselves or a family member decides to spend their money on something else.) If there’s a decent chance she’ll get mad either way, you can use other criteria for making a decision. While you can’t tell someone else how to feel about surprise consanguinity, I don’t think you’ve learned anything that you’re obliged to disclose. Your parents shared one, possibly two, great-great-great-grandparents. They didn’t have known relatives in common, shared a negligible amount of DNA, and could have freely and legally gotten married in any state. You can tell her, if you think it would be too nerve-wracking to keep it to yourself, but you’re free to exercise your own judgment and even to defend your choice if she found out from someone else further down the line.
The part that you may feel necessary to disclose is that you’ve been sending messages to distant relatives on her behalf. But those messages sound fairly noncommittal and impersonal, so I think there’s an argument to be made for simply telling her you’re not up for managing her account anymore and letting her decide if she wants to let it lapse or hire someone to help her manage it (which she could do remotely and without having to pay for a full-time assistant—genealogy is a pretty low-impact hobby for her, it sounds like). She’s made it clear that even if she has a suspicion about a family connection, she doesn’t want to know more about it, so you’ve got reason to believe she wouldn’t go digging further. Beyond that, if your mother ever finds out she and her late husband were very distantly related, you can offer sympathy for her distress without necessarily agreeing it’s a life-altering revelation.
Q. Dating a COVID cohabitator: I am a woman in my early 30s who is fairly new to my city. I moved after ending an engagement with my 10-year-long partner. I have been single now for 2½ years. My ex-fiancé and I mutually ended things in couples counseling. I maintain loose ties with him and will always care for him. Quarantining has made me grateful that that part of my life happened and that it’s over. Recently I’ve started trying to date again; I met a great guy on an app and we really hit it off. We had both been social distancing since March and met up in a secluded park—this felt like an acceptable risk to us. We talked and made each other laugh constantly. After inching closer to each other, we made out for hours. I hadn’t so much as hugged anyone since the winter, and it was powerful. Here’s the thing: He is still living with his ex just outside the city. He assured me that they have separate bedrooms and no longer kiss or touch. It sounds like they don’t really communicate much at all. They’ve been together over a decade. I find this comforting, as it’s been challenging for me to relate to potential suitors who have not had long-term relationships. Their shared lease ends in the fall and he wants to move out.
My question is: What is right here? I don’t want to start this relationship by inappropriately prodding into the dynamics of the relationship that he’s ended but still physically in. That doesn’t feel like a good foundation. With COVID and all, there are only so many places we can go to actually go to date. I like him. I want to kiss him more and keep laughing, talking, and feeling out the pace of this. The idea of going into his apartment where his ex resides seems cruel. But there are only so many places we can go to build this thing. Moreover, I feel I’m not sure about the right boundaries around talking to someone about their ex whom they live with.
A. It’s not “inappropriately prodding” to ask someone you’re kissing about their risk assessment-and-management strategy. Think of it like having a conversation about safe sex: It would be rude and intrusive to demand a detailed account of everyone he’s ever slept with in his life on the spot, but it would be sensible and appropriate to ask him if he’s seeing other people and to bring up birth control and condoms before you have sex. Just because he and his ex are no longer intimate doesn’t mean they’re not in regular contact or sharing surfaces in the kitchen, living room, entryway, bathroom, etc. Don’t be squeamish about exchanging information about shared risk and mutually agreed-upon safeguards. It’s not inappropriate to ask where a relationship is going with someone you like. You might not want to ask him to move in together after one date, even a really good date, but if you keep seeing each other and you want to know more about what he’s looking for in a relationship, you have a right to ask.
Q. Not your secretary: I got hired through a temp agency to an office. (It was supposed to be 90 days and then they hired me, but it’s been many months and I’ve been told by others that it is commonplace to extend the temp.) My desk is separate from the other admins, by the front (which is least desirable, because people are constantly coming in and interrupting my work). That’s unfortunate, but I’m hoping sooner or later I can move when there’s another new person. The problem is that I’m by several high-ranking offices, and one of the men treats me as his personal gopher. He constantly is sending me emails to print this or that, maybe 15 times a day. Let me just make clear this is NOT my boss—I am just closest to him. First of all, he knows how to use the printer. Most irritatingly, we are the same distance from the printer. (It’s about 30 meters away, give or take.) I attempted to repeat that I haven’t had time when he asks if it’s done yet, since I have multiple things that are time-sensitive each day, and I’d hoped that he’d get tired of waiting and do it himself. No such luck. The main question is, how do I get this to stop? I’m just a temp, while he is head of sales. And just to note, HR would not be an option. Should I just ride it out until I (hopefully) move desks, tell him that it’s constantly interrupting my work, or just keep doing it?
A: I wouldn’t suggest HR for this sort of problem anyway. I think it’s best to go to whoever your boss is and ask for direction: “It’s my understanding that you wanted me to prioritize X and Y projects and report directly to you, but Rehoboam has been asking me to print documents for him about 15 times a day. Is this something you want me working on?” I don’t know if the scope of your responsibilities has changed, but it may be an honest misunderstanding. Either your boss will say, “Yes, X/Y is something I want you doing,” at which point you can describe how much time this takes away from your other duties and figure out a priority plan together. Or your boss will correct him (and/or have your back when you correct him).
Q. Pregnant in an open relationship: My husband and I are both 33 years old, and we are in an open relationship. We were friends with benefits for years before that, and we got married three years ago to stop our families from haranguing us and because we really enjoy being around each other and spending time together. During those three years, we became even closer and have developed a real love for each other—however, we still enjoyed having flings or one-night stands with others. Since quarantine started, we stopped going out and have only been sleeping with each other. I recently found out that I’m pregnant (eight weeks!) and have not told him yet but want to do so soon. We both want kids but planned on trying in a few years. I’m wondering what this could mean for our relationship. Previously, we decided that we’d become monogamous after we had kids, but that was when we thought it would be in two or three years! Now that I’m pregnant, I definitely want to be monogamous, but it seems unfair to take away the two to three years of an open relationship we wanted. How can we talk about this? Can we have an open relationship with little kids?
A: The timing may be less than ideal, but you can hardly be accused of being unfair to your husband by conceiving. And you two have already stopped sleeping with other people, admittedly out of necessity, but that should take some of the pressure off the conversation: You’re not asking him to end a relationship abruptly or drastically overhaul his current social life. People in open relationships do have children; they have a different series of commitments, obligations, and priorities to juggle than their nonparental counterparts, but it does happen. If anyone has relevant experience they’d like to share or advice they’d like to pass on, please do. I don’t know many parents with newborns who have a lot of free time or who want to spend the free time they have doing much besides sleeping (not that there aren’t exceptions to that rule, I’m sure).
All of which is to say, what you’re proposing is pretty straightforward. You want to discuss an unanticipated change in plans with your husband, the father of your child. You have every right to talk about this. You both have an equal stake in raising your unborn child. This affects both of you, so don’t apologize for acknowledging reality. Once you’ve shared the news of your pregnancy with him, you can also reassess your open status together.
Q. Supporting an exploring son: Recently I came across my 10-year-old kid trying to access porn for the first time (not by snooping—the order confirmation showed up in my email). Interestingly (and also not that surprisingly), it happened to be gay porn. I’ve made sure they can’t order or buy anything else from their device, not because of the porn but because I don’t want to learn I’ve bought $5,000 worth of mobile game tokens because my kid thinks they’re free. We talked the next day. I let him know I removed the ability to make purchases on that device and why (he’d also signed up for a nonporn subscription), that I couldn’t let him order things without my permission first, and that curiosity was natural and I was always available to answer questions.
I didn’t mention the content, not out of lack of support if they are LGBTQ, but because perhaps they were also curious about their own body, or maybe both, or maybe something else entirely. Did I do OK? Should I have said more? Less? Should I say anything in the future, and if so, what? Should I talk about that last part, or is it too late since the moment has passed? And should I say anything to their dad (we’re divorced and I’m remarried)? I don’t feel like it’s up to me to discuss. I want to make sure I can be supportive but not prying. I’m straight and cis and they are my only child, I haven’t been in this territory before.
A: You’re doing fine! By the way, it would still be fine if you’d restricted purchasing on your kid’s device, even if you weren’t worried about mobile game tokens. There’s nothing repressive or cruel about saying to your 10-year-old, “Your curiosity is natural, but you can’t use my credit card to buy porn on your iPad.” And you can certainly revisit this conversation with your kid—I think a lot of the concern letter writers express about bringing something up after “the moment has passed” is a waste of time and energy. This is part of an ongoing discussion about puberty, bodies, sexuality, masturbation, and growing up. The moment has very much not passed; it’s just getting started. You don’t have to avoid the word gay just because your kid might have been curious for some other reason. Avoiding discussions of LGBT people or issues out of the fear that you might be “wrong” isn’t the way to go here. Even if your kid ended up being largely straight, you’d want them to know it’s not a forbidden or touchy subject: “I know this might not be something you’d be eager to discuss with your parents, but if you’re curious about gay sex, or have questions for either me or your dad, we’re here for you.” Leave open the option of talking to their father; I don’t know how amicable your co-parenting relationship is, but it’s pretty likely that if you share custody your ex is going to want to have some version of this talk with your kid on his own one of these days. You don’t have to do it tomorrow, but you’ll probably want to discuss at least the broad outlines with him, again assuming it’s safe to do so.
Q. Re: My partner eats like a child: My partner is similar, though not quite as severely picky. I found myself getting frustrated earlier in our relationships that he didn’t want to go to interesting or experimental restaurants with me. Now I just save those restaurants for my other friends, and I’ve accepted that when we go out together there are more limited choices. Just one suggestion for that portion of the letter.
A: It’s often tough to advise couples who are divided over food, at least partly because “it’s just food” is a common attitude that fails to account for the fact that everyone has to eat every day, usually more than once, and that it all can be deeply wrapped up with things like class, culture, gender, shame, pleasure, community, and trauma. So on the one hand, I don’t want to tell someone who really values adventurous eating and being an appreciative guest to just “get over” having a partner who puts hosts on the spot by failing to mention a limited palate and leaving their food untouched, and who never wants to try new restaurants. But on the other hand, trying to cajole or plead or shame someone out of a powerfully felt food aversion just seems like setting yourself up for failure, alienating their trust and affection, and driving yourself up the wall. I think the letter writer’s best next move is to look for opportunities to detach, disengage, let go of outcomes, and try to figure out whether this is something she can accept in his partner if it never changes.
Q. Implicit racism or German superman? I work as a web developer at a small company on an all-white team. We have a senior developer who likes to give things goofy names. Recently he has started naming all the admin users for our various development accounts “Übermensch.” I am conflicted because Übermensch has a literal German translation to “superman,” so this could just be a bad joke about a “super” or admin user, but on the other hand it also has pretty well-known associations with Nazi eugenics. I feel gross typing it every day to log in to shared resources. Should I say something about the professionalism of our naming convention, or am I being too sensitive?
A: Say something. If it’s a genuine mistake, he’ll appreciate being corrected, even if he feels embarrassed not to have known about the connotations. If it’s not a mistake, it’s all the more important to speak up. Preface your explanation with “You may not have realized this, but … ” since you want to give ignorance the benefit of the doubt, but it will take five minutes to fix (at most), and there are plenty of other ways to positively describe admin users.
Q. Re: Implicit racism or German Superman? While Übermensch was used by Hitler, he used it incorrectly. The idea of the Übermensch is a philosophical concept from Nietzsche and is a key theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Übermensch is, essentially, a replacement for God—giving meaning to life on Earth through reality, rather than through religion. It’s quite the opposite of evil.
A: Yes, I’m familiar with the Nietzschean origins; at that point we can rearrange the problem from “Nazi eugenicist ties” to “What was that line from Zarathustra about women being incapable of friendship and being ‘at best, cows’? Is that before or after ‘A plaything let woman be, pure and fine like the precious stone, illumined with the virtues of a world not yet come. Let the beam of a star shine in your love! Let your hope say: “May I bear the Superman!’ ” The point is there are a lot of other ways to denote “this admin user is good at their job” that doesn’t involve debates about Nietzsche or “Actually, the Nazis misused this phrase that is now pretty famously associated with them, so let’s all forget that association on the count of three.” Come, now, let us be reasonable: What’s wrong with “Admin User”? Prosaic, but there’s nothing wrong with prosaic handles in a work chat.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.
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From How to Do It
My girlfriend and I have been dating for about two months. She is not on birth control and doesn’t have an IUD. I went out and bought a bunch of condoms, and I used a condom for our first time. However, after this, she asked me to go without and finish on her rather than inside her. Despite this being a very bad idea, I did it (and avoided having an oopsie inside her) three more times. After this very first weekend together, she was late by several days, giving us an excruciating pregnancy scare. This cemented in me that the “pullout method” was a really bad idea and that we would need to use condoms. She says she hates condoms, that they don’t feel right, and that they “hurt” like being cut. I told her it is either condoms or birth control. She has shot down using pill-based birth control, saying it affects her hormones, mood, etc. But if she won’t, then I need to use condoms. Any ideas on how to frame the discussion? Read what Stoya had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.