Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Living in a horse girl’s dorm room: My wife was a nationally ranked equestrian when she was growing up, and rode competitively for her college team. We first started dating in college. At that time, her dorm room was covered in horse paraphernalia—photos, old riding awards, trinkets from competitions, horse-themed calendars, you name it. I never really paid much attention to it because I’m not a decorations guy and honestly didn’t care about the aesthetics of her dorm room. However, now that we’ve moved into our first real home together, my wife is starting to turn this into a horse home! There is horse-related stuff EVERYWHERE. It’s like someone’s grandma’s horse-themed attic threw up in here.
I’ve tried to gently bring it up but since I don’t really have decorative “taste” and didn’t contribute any of my own decorations, it’s not like I can suggest hanging up some of my stuff too. My wife injured herself severely in a horse accident during her senior year and hasn’t ridden since then. She gets incredibly emotional if I even suggest leaving a painting or two off the wall and perhaps putting them into storage. Prudie, I don’t need an Instagram-worthy home, just one that looks like adults live here. I don’t hang up paintings of sports teams I love or my succulent tools! I don’t understand why my wife is so attached to all this stuff and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m a grown man living in a horse girl’s dorm room. I feel like a jerk for complaining because she’s the one who invested time and money into decorating, and as I said, I have no great ideas … I just don’t like the way it is now. What should I do?
A: For starters, if you want to have this conversation (again) with your wife, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come up with some ideas for how you’d like to decorate your home. They don’t have to be great, but they do have to exist, and if you can’t think of anything offhand, there’s an entire industry of “interior design suggestions” just waiting to be explored. That’s not to say you can’t approach her unless you’ve spent 50 hours designing a look book first, but do a little research, see what you like, and bring a few suggestions to the table.
I’d also encourage you to focus on what you can reasonably ask of a partner (“I want a 50 percent reduction in horse decor, and I think it’s important to keep talking about this even if you feel upset” is a perfectly achievable discussion) rather than attempt to psychoanalyze said partner (“I want a 50 percent reduction in horse decor, and I think you’re trapped in a state of arrested development because you were thrown off a horse your senior year of college. What do you think? Can you meet my terms, and do you agree that you’re psychologically frozen in time?” is not). You can be “gentle” without abandoning the topic just because your partner gets upset. Acknowledge that this is emotional for her, demonstrate patience and compassion if she starts crying, take a break if things get too heated—but don’t just back off because she gets upset.
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Q. Am I being selfish and a bad parent? I have been married for seven years and have two sons, ages 2 and 3. Although it never used to be, my marriage has become incredibly toxic. My husband is always screaming and punching holes in the walls. I’m afraid. He never used to be this way. I never argue back because I know it’ll just make things worse and I don’t bring it up once he’s calm because I know it’ll just trigger him to blow up again. In the moment I try encouraging him to take calming breaths and/or offer to hold a punching bag that I bought for him. But nothing seems to help. No matter what I try, he’s just getting worse.
I want to take my kids and run, but both of my sons have expensive medical conditions. They won’t die if we leave, but I wouldn’t be able to afford their therapies. Would it make me selfish or a bad parent if I left even though I can’t give them the comfortable lifestyle that they currently have and I can’t afford to get them the treatments and therapies that they need to thrive? I feel like staying might be damaging or dangerous for myself, but leaving jeopardizes my children’s future. I’ve looked into organizations that could help pay for their treatments, but the consensus is that their cases are too mild, and since it isn’t life-threatening, they don’t qualify for assistance. So really, it’s stay or they lose everything. Would it be selfish to leave anyway?
A: It would not be selfish to leave, even if your sons did stand to lose everything, but it may not mean losing access to your son’s therapies either—I’d encourage you to speak to a divorce lawyer about the importance of maintaining consistent medical care for your children after you leave your husband and how that can be factored into the arrangement of child support. Given your husband’s explosiveness, I imagine you’re hoping to minimize contact once you’ve left (which I think is wise), but you can coordinate an arrangement through your lawyer, without having to meet or speak directly about it.
You know, I think, that your sons’ life with their father is not truly comfortable as long as they’re frightened and flinching every time he gets violent, and that their futures with him are already in jeopardy. Even if he does not directly turn his violence onto them, watching your parent explode in fury and tear apart the house is deeply disorienting and damaging to a child’s sense of security and well-being; you will only do your children good if you leave with them. Please do whatever you need to do in order to minimize the risks of leaving; contact a local women’s shelter if you need help coming up with a safety plan, do not try to explain to your husband why you’re leaving if you think he’ll get violent again, reach out to friends and family for logistical and financial help (only such people as you believe can help you confidentially and without spreading the word around, of course), and take care of yourself and your children. You all deserve better than this.
Q. Nitpicking: My boyfriend is clingy but he also finds fault in everything about me. He finds the smell of my hair products offensive, he attacks my face if he sees a pimple, he freaks out if he thinks I’m cutting a tomato the wrong way. He says he’s happy to have a woman who has her own job and can help pay the bills, but he also gets mad when I tell him I can’t help him get something we don’t even need because I have my own bills to pay. He says mean things out of the blue if one little thing offends him. I was happy in the relationship until we moved in together. I thought I was ready. Now I’m learning his true nature. What should I do?
A: I think you should leave him! I think you think you should leave him too, which is why you refer to this as his “true nature” and describe your happiness in this relationship in the past tense. There are few combinations worse than clinginess and cruelty. Depending on how recently you two moved in together, you may find it difficult to get out of your lease early, but even if you can’t “officially” move out for another few months, you can either start quietly planning your next move now, or break up with him today and stay with friends until your lease is up (which may be difficult for a number of reasons, COVID not least among them, but is certainly a possibility worth investigating). I don’t know what you mean by “attacks [your] face” when he sees a blemish, but if these attacks are physical, that’s all the more reason to get out of this apartment today.
Q. Ex-vegetarian living a lie: I became a vegetarian 11 years ago for moral reasons. My parents were very unhappy with the decision and have never let me forget it. They don’t like that I’m vegetarian because it’s not a “healthy” diet, because it’s too much trouble for them to cook for me, because I think I’m better than they are for making this choice. I have been very gracious with them and have given them time to get used to the idea. I have never tried to convert them to my diet or even have an in-depth conversation about it because I know they will not listen. I’ve offered to cook for myself or bring my own food when I’m visiting them (they never take me up on this offer and refuse to let me cook at their home). I know of a few occasions where they “forgot” or “accidentally” used an ingredient I don’t eat in an otherwise vegetarian dish. I was always told about the “accident” after two to three bites of the meal. I never complained or got angry with them, I just said something like “Oh, I shouldn’t eat this then.” The last two to three years they have calmed down and stopped talking about it at every meal, which has been a nice change.
The problem is that I can’t stick with this diet any longer. I’ve developed anemia and iron supplements aren’t sufficient. My doctor recommended that I start incorporating more meat into my diet to get more iron. I have been reluctantly eating meat again for the last 18 months. I feel much better physically and I’m coming to terms with the fact that the vegetarian diet just isn’t right for me and my body anymore. I haven’t yet told my parents that I’m eating meat again. I’m not looking forward to their reaction. I imagine they will either crow with glee or accuse me of deliberately inconveniencing them for the last 10 years, both of which would hurt in different ways. Regardless of their initial reaction, I believe they’ll hold this over my head for the rest of my life. Is it wrong for me to continue to pretend to be vegetarian with them? I’ve had to loop my mother-in-law and my husband into my lie too, which complicates things. Neither of them minds helping me hide this from my parents, but it feels wrong to keep lying to them and to have other people complicit. What should I do?
A: I agree that, for all your husband and mother-in-law might be willing to lie on your behalf, it would be kind of tiring and anxiogenic for you to have to keep tabs on who knows what and what other load-bearing lies they might have to gin up on short notice to keep the original lie standing. But I also don’t think you owe your parents an announcement every time you change your diet, whether that change comes as a result of consideration for animals, medical advice, or mere whim. Since your goal is to keep your parents from endlessly litigating your diet, I think it would be counterproductive to make an announcement of any kind. That leaves you with several options—you can continue to keep them at arm’s length on the subject but instruct your husband and mother-in-law not to lie on your behalf; if your parents eventually learn about the change and want to raise a stink about it, you can shut them down and say, “You’ve been so relentlessly tiresome on the subject, I just don’t want to discuss what I eat with you anymore.” If they try to “crow with glee” or level wild accusations about the idea that the past decade was some sort of long con to trick them into eating beans a little more often, I’d encourage you to hang up the phone, or leave the room, or otherwise cut the conversation short. (I’d also encourage you, frankly, to share fewer meals with your parents—maybe something in the vicinity of “no meals.”)
Q. Cabin fever in quarantine: My boyfriend and I moved in together at the beginning of the year, pre-pandemic. In the beginning of the summer we decided together to give up our apartment in the city and move in with my family upstate to save money while we are working remotely. I really love him and our relationship is solid, but I am desperate for some alone time. Is there a nice way I can ask him to go visit his family for a week? Both of his parents have space for him, though their places aren’t as comfortable as my mom’s. He always wants to be around me and I just need some space.
A: Of course you can ask for space. You should ask for space! I don’t think you need to start by asking he go somewhere in particular—he might bristle at having a “vacation” arranged for him—but you should certainly say that you need a solid week to yourself in the short term, and more frequent bouts of alone time as a general rule in the long term. If he’s up for visiting his parents (and they’re up for hosting him), that’s great, but it’s not the only possible solution to your problem. If this is going to be the first time you’ve addressed the fact that he “always wants to be around [you],” you can probably expect a slightly bumpy conversation, especially if he didn’t realize how much space you need—but it’s a very necessary conversation, and not one you should apologize for initiating. Living with your boyfriend and your family under extremely close quarters during a pandemic would make even the most contented of homebodies want a little space, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love or appreciate him.
Q. New car blues: I recently bought a new car. This is my first time purchasing a vehicle, and I will be paying my own insurance and other associated fees for myself now too (my previous vehicles had been secondhand and legally belonged to my parents). I was lucky to have been able to purchase the exact new car I wanted and I am overall extremely happy with my new ride. However, I am inexplicably left with a feeling of regret or sadness at the thought of having made this change. I have no real attachment to my old car (I didn’t pick it out and it often gave me more trouble than anything else), so it’s not so much that I’ll miss it. I think it’s more that I feel guilty for buying a brand new vehicle with all the bells and whistles. My old car was close to 20 years old and still had a cassette player, whereas my new one has a touch-screen media center that I can pair my phone with, among other major upgrades. I feel like I don’t deserve such a relatively “fancy” car, even though I realize that all these features are probably pretty standard for modern cars. I grew up without having many new or nice things, so in a way it feels wrong for me to own something as impressive as a new car, even though I can afford it. How can I get over this weird regret and guilt I feel? Intellectually I know that my old car wouldn’t last much longer and that I needed a replacement, but I can’t let go of the feeling that I made a mistake in purchasing something I needed.
A: Let this feeling be useful to you! Investigate it, pay close attention to it, don’t attempt to rationalize it away as quickly as possible. There’s a world of difference between “I generally don’t feel like I deserve nice things” and “I must have this top-of-the-line, brand-new car in order to make up for my childhood.” New cars tend to depreciate pretty quickly in value, so part of the regret you’re feeling now might have something to do with that; if you decide that in the future you’ll consider something in between a rusted-out car that barely works and the flashiest car you can find, that doesn’t mean you have to spend the next 15 years beating yourself up for getting this one. It just means you can use this regret to make informed decisions in the future. And in the meantime, enjoy your touch screen and Bluetooth pairing! Feeling miserable about the nice features of the car you already own won’t do you any good. I realize that’s easier said than done, of course, but regret can be useful when it leads you to make new decisions, and fairly useless when it convinces you that your only option is to feel miserable in the present about something you can’t change.
Q. Re: Am I being selfish and a bad parent? This made me cry. I got out of a domestic violence situation earlier this year when I realized not only was my partner not going to change but that it was escalating to a point where I would probably be dead in a month if I stayed. (He wasn’t punching walls, but he did think it was OK to throw me into them.)
Please, letter writer, get out, as soon as you can, as safely as you can. No one in your home is safe. My wake-up call involved a police officer pressing assault charges on my behalf even when I didn’t want to. It wasn’t easy to leave in the middle of a pandemic (and I didn’t have kids with me), but I knew the day I left that I really had no other choice if I still wanted to see 2021. I still love him, I still miss him and our home, and I still do not regret the decision to leave him.
A: Thank you so much for sharing this—I’m so sorry you had to suffer through that kind of abuse, and I’m so glad you’re safely away from your abuser today. I hope the letter writer gets all the support in leaving she needs, and then some.
Q. Re: “Sensitive in Seattle” (column, Nov. 14, 2020): I’m writing about your answer to the question about an “overweight” partner breaking furniture. I doubt that you meant to be, but the way in which you framed your answer was very hurtful and harmful to fat people. Fundamentally, the experience of having furniture break under you is one of the most deeply traumatic and fraught experiences someone can have in a fat body. Most of us have developed coping mechanisms like humor or nonchalance in order to deal with the abject fear of anger, blame, and humiliation that comes with the immediate experience of breaking furniture. That doesn’t mean that we’re not sorry that the furniture broke, we’re just terrified of an apology that essentially breaks down to “sorry I’m fat.”
In addition to all the emotional complication and possible traumatic history of the situation, you might also consider that most inexpensive modern furniture is indeed incredibly flimsy and easily broken! I’ve been present when bed slats have broken during completely ordinary bed activities like sitting on the side of the bed. It’s entirely possible that the girlfriend here has purchased very flimsy furniture, as she’s never had to think about whether a chair will hold up to her mass. This is not entirely her fault, but it is the fault of the fast fashion/disposable nature of modern consumer goods.
A: I think you’re quite right, and I want to both amend and apologize for my original answer; I’ve gotten more feedback along these lines, and I think they were right, too. What I wanted to get at was that the letter writer was in a different position from, say, someone who was organizing a public event and provided those awful metal chairs with the hemmed-in armrests, in that she might reasonably not have known the durability of her own furniture. But there are many circumstances in which someone should not have to apologize for furniture breaking, and I shouldn’t have said it’s “always” the polite response.
The sort of conversation I’d envisioned between the two of them was not for her partner to have to put on a show of abjection (“I’m the problem, you and your furniture are good, I’m sorry for the size of my body”) so much as shared concern for one another and the ability to discuss other options. But my answer was off-base and doesn’t truly work toward achieving that goal, and while I don’t want to make assumptions about where this ranks for the letter writer’s partner in terms of personal trauma, you’re quite right that the approach I recommended is too harsh and doesn’t take the context of hostile architecture and fatphobia into account. I’m truly sorry! I think you’re right to assume his flustered response was based in fear of being blamed or rejected for his body, and I don’t want to advise the letter writer to be brisk and dismissive here. I do still hope she can find ways to talk about making her home accessible and welcoming with him, and I hope he can be present for such a conversation, but I agree it shouldn’t be under the conditions of “Actually, my furniture was great,” but under the conditions of “I’ve learned something new about the durability of my furniture, and that it doesn’t serve the people who want to use it.” Thank you again for this; I’m sorry to have gotten this one so wrong, especially over something as important as comfort, safety, and humane treatment for fat people in a fatphobic world.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks again for the help, everyone, especially for the pushback on last week’s question! I appreciate it, and will keep it at the front of my mind for future questions. See you next week!
From Care and Feeding
Q. My family’s history of disability has made me afraid to have kids: I’m 29, and my husband is 32. We’re both pretty sure we want kids, but now that it’s almost time to actually do it, he’s ready to go, but I’m freaking out. My biggest fear is of having a disabled child. My sister is severely disabled from a chronic mental illness, and I love her, but I see every day how hard her condition is on my parents. She requires around-the-clock care, and my parents’ marriage—let alone their own health and finances—has barely survived. I know that the odds of my own child being similarly disabled are low, but I’m still not sure I can take the risk. How do I get over this? Part of me does long for a child, but at other moments I wonder why I would risk messing up the easy, happy life I have now? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
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