Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My brother, a police officer, is getting blacklisted by my friends: My brother (he’s older by two years) is a police officer. This was his childhood dream, and he’s dedicated his entire life to making it happen. Prudie, he’s wonderful. He leads his department’s restorative justice seminars, he was fighting for anti-bias training three years ago before it was widespread, and he spends much of his free time at the local rec center mentoring at-risk youth.
But my friends who know he’s a police officer have been cruel to him since this past summer. They frequently bring up political topics that put him on the defensive. They constantly forward me articles about police brutality and how “there are no good cops.” They’ll post Instagram stories with graphic depictions of police violence, then DM me to make sure I’ve seen them. It’s awful. I genuinely believe my friends think they’re doing the right thing and that if they just push hard enough I’ll somehow get my brother to resign from his dream job. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I feel like they’ve drawn a line between us: As long as my brother is a police officer, I won’t be fully accepted in the group. This feels like yet one more “fault line” 2020 has drawn between me and the people I love, and I can’t stand to lose any friends right now. I already feel so lonely. How can I get my friends to stop harassing me about my brother’s occupation? Am I thinking about this the right way?
A: I hardly think your friends’ objections to your brother’s job have anything to do with his volunteer work as a mentor, so I’m not surprised that response hasn’t gotten you very far. And while his seminars on restorative justice may or may not be thorough, informative, and/or compelling, they don’t change the fact that it is not the job of the police to practice restorative justice. Nor is the efficacy of “anti-bias training” well established, especially when combating intentional, conscious bias.
Obviously—and this is my own bias here—my position is closer to your friends’ than to yours, so I’m afraid you’re not going to get the answer you’re hoping for from me. I don’t think it’s cruel to “bring up topics” that make someone feel defensive, nor to want to discuss police brutality with a cop. That said, certainly there are circumstances where it’s perfectly appropriate to tell a friend to stop sharing traumatizing images of police violence in your DMs, and I can imagine plenty of your friends’ approaches leave a lot to be desired. But if your friends say, “Police brutality is widespread and wrong, and I believe the problem is fundamental to the practice of policing, not an accidental case of ‘a few bad apples’ that can be screened out or solved through a few more in-office seminars,” and your response is, “But this is my brother’s dream job, and besides, he volunteers at the Y a few days a week,” I don’t think your response has been very carefully thought out. “There are no good cops” is designed to push past this sort of reflexive response. Your brother’s individual comportment does not excuse him or you from thinking critically about the police as an establishment; the issues are structural, departmental, institutional, and cannot be addressed by individually friendly officers.
You don’t have to agree with me, of course. You don’t agree with your friends, so I doubt my word will go further with you than theirs have. It is possible to love your brother, to think well of him and his intentions, and to think critically of his chosen profession no matter how good his intentions are. But I’m not sure you can indefinitely avoid this fault line, nor would I want to encourage you to do so even if that were possible.
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Q. Can I stop my husband’s work relationship from turning into an affair? My now-retired husband of 40-plus years has a single, work-based friend with whom he is friendly in a slightly-too-intimate way. Whenever she was in town, they would go for drinks at romantic rooftop watering holes. She once commented that if she could have a marriage like ours, she would have gotten married. On Christmas morning, she sent him a text saying she was thinking of him.
I think this is too much. Hubby is emotionally clueless and no doubt enjoys her admiration and caring, but I don’t think he fully realizes the threat to our marriage. I have accused him of being too close to her, but he denies it and has sometimes lied about being with her. However, I don’t think he wants out of the marriage—I have asked. I know there is not much I can do. Have you any advice?
A: A little, yes! I don’t believe that your husband is “emotionally clueless” at all. He’s clued-in enough to know to lie to you about spending time with her, and unless he has memory problems you’ve failed to mention, he likely remembers the fact that you’ve directly accused him of being too close to her and gone so far as to ask him whether he wants to leave you. Those are much more than just “clues.”
I suspect that because you’re far more invested in your husband of 40-plus years than his former co-worker, you want very much for him to be clueless and for her to be “too much,” because then she’s the real problem and he’s just the naïve, overly trusting lovable oaf you have to protect from her machinations. I think you should talk to your husband honestly about this threat to your marriage and name that threat specifically as his decision to lie to you and cultivate an emotionally intimate, flirtatious relationship with someone else despite knowing how it hurts you. I can understand why that prospect feels daunting, but you’ll be able to make better decisions once you both fully realize the threat your marriage is facing rather than try to maintain the shared fiction of your husband’s cluelessness. He’s not being clueless; he’s being insensitive.
Q. Is what’s mine yours? My boyfriend and I are very much in love and have happily merged our lives together. We plan to get engaged and married in the next two years.
I come from a privileged background, while my boyfriend comes from a working-class family. I recently learned that my father plans to give me a generous set of mutual funds, essentially to ensure that my future family and I will be comfortable for life. Upon learning of the money, my boyfriend asked if we could give a portion of the money to his parents as they move into retirement. I love his generous spirit, and his parents, but this money is mine until we tie the knot, and even then, it was gifted to me to set up our future. I worry about giving the money away before we really have a chance to use it for its intended purpose, like on a house down payment or a baby. Am I being selfish?
A: It’s not selfish to disagree with your fiancé-to-be about the best use of an unexpected windfall so long as you’re prepared to hear him out and consider possible compromises. It sounds like for your boyfriend, part of being “comfortable for life” would include knowing that his parents can afford to retire. You already know your parents can afford to retire and have actually grown up with your parents’ financial security as a simple background fact of life, so it may be difficult at first for you to understand his position. You say you’ve “happily” merged your lives together and want to get married, so don’t be unduly concerned that this particular aspect of merging hasn’t been immediately easy, straightforward, and fun. Joint finances can be a difficult topic of conversation for any couple, and since you two have very different backgrounds and (potentially) a few different goals and priorities, it stands to reason you’ll disagree once in a while. That’s not necessarily an indicator that there’s a serious problem so long as you can find ways to respectfully and productively discuss compromises together.
The fact that your boyfriend asked you to consider the possibility of giving some of the money to his parents suggests he’s reasonably open to such compromises, that he doesn’t want to force your hand, and that he’s also interested in setting money aside for a home or for future child care. That’s a good sign! You should join him in a larger conversation about what kind of financial assistance you’d both be prepared to offer his parents and other relatives, how you’d want to offer such assistance, how much money you each think you’d need to be comfortable (a word many people use to describe wildly different conditions), etc., before making any final decisions about disbursing money you don’t yet have.
Q. Too old to look this young: I am a fiftysomething woman with the body of a prepubescent girl. I’ve always been extremely petite and small-chested and now have almost no body hair (due to chronic issues, I prefer a Brazilian to my old au natural look). My now ex-husband was delighted with this new look, which I found cringingly uncomfortable due to my resemblance to a 10-year-old girl. I’m interested in dating again and maybe even some casual sex, but I fear how future partners (male or female) might react to my immature presentation. Of course a negative reaction would be hurtful, but it’s an overly positive reaction that really scares me. And I can’t begin to imagine what kinds of people I might be attracting if I were to describe myself on a dating website. Am I overthinking this?
A: I’m not sure what chronic issues require an ongoing Brazilian wax, but if such a look is so disturbing to you that you can’t think of yourself as an adult sexual agent or don’t trust your partners when they say they find your appearance attractive, I’d encourage you to discuss alternatives with your aesthetician, if only because your peace of mind ought to be at least as important as your physical needs.
Beyond that, all I can say is that a 50-year-old woman is not a 10-year-old girl by any stretch of the imagination, nor is your body “immature” simply because you are petite. Petite adult women are not 10-year-old girls, or anything like an approximation thereof, and neither are women with smaller breasts or relatively little body hair. By that same token, women and girls with larger chests or more body hair are not especially mature, or extra-mature, or anything of the kind. There is a great deal of variety and diversity among mature adult bodies! Beyond that, if you suspect anyone who responds to the dating profile of a fiftysomething woman of secretly harboring desires to pretend that she is a child, I would encourage you to consult a therapist. I don’t say that flippantly or to suggest that you should feel foolish for your anxieties. It may be that your ex-husband said or did things beyond simply enjoying your Brazilian wax that set off some of these concerns, and you deserve the opportunity to process them in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. But the problem is not your adult body, and you do not need to live with the unexamined, unchallenged fear that anyone who wants to date or sleep with you is somehow suspect simply for finding you attractive.
Q. Phony accent: I’m an American who has been living in the U.K. for about four years. Recently I noticed that I’m starting to develop a bit of a British inflection. I’m trying not to, but it’s getting harder and harder. My neighbor is an American expat as well who has lived here for more than a decade and has still been able to retain her Midwestern accent—although she works with and is friends with a lot of Americans, whereas I work with and am friends with pretty much only British people. Making it worse, I’m from New England, so my natural accent is already somewhat similar (a distinct distaste for the “r” sound). I feel like one of those people who goes on vacation and pretends they picked up the accent while they were there for a week. Any advice on how to stop Brit-talking?
A: I can understand your anxiety (certainly people do tease Americans who start to sound a little British), but this is hardly the same thing as affecting a British accent after a few days of vacation. Plenty of people lose their accents (or pick up a bit of an accent, depending on your perspective) after living in a country for several years, especially if their previous accents were already similar. It’s fine! It’s harmless! It’s mostly unconscious and, as you say, the result of living and working and socializing almost exclusively with British people for four years, not an indication that you’re some overeager Anglophile. You’re doing fine!
Q. Fighting and making up: When my wife and I (both women) disagree about something minor, or when one of us says something insensitive, I like to make up and come to some kind of understanding. It gives me a lot of anxiety to have unresolved tension. She feels like it’s unimportant and prefers to process alone, but that ends up bleeding into the rest of the day. These aren’t big issues (think “Did you see I cleaned the guest room?” “No, I didn’t notice,” followed by hurt feelings), but I hate the tension! Do I need to just suck it up, or is there a way to address these things in the moment?
A: No, you don’t need to just suck it up. It’s fine that your wife likes a little alone time to cool down after a quarrel, but it’s not “unimportant” to want to put even just a one- or two-sentence button on things to mark the end of a disagreement. (For example, “Did you see I cleaned the guest room?” “No, I didn’t notice—thank you so much for doing that. Do you want to have a conversation about housework in general? If there’s something I’m neglecting, or something you’re frustrated about, I’m happy to talk about it.”) Giving her a little time is one thing, but you don’t have to just walk on eggshells until the next afternoon—go ahead and ask to revisit things, or say you want to kiss and make up the next time she’s about to head into an overnight sulk.
Q. Queasy quandary: I have a very sensitive stomach and cannot handle the sight of blood or vomit without feeling sick. My sister and brother-in-law both work at emergency rooms and on family Zoom calls will tell stories of particularly gross or interesting patients they’ve had, such as a kid who fell so badly at a skate park that a bone popped out of his arm. I always end up vividly picturing these scenarios and feel close to throwing up when they tell very descriptive stories, although the rest of my family enjoys hearing them. When I’ve asked them if they could maybe not go so in-depth, they’ve told me to just toughen up because I can’t go through life without hearing or seeing some gross stuff.
I love being able to see my family on Zoom, but I hate hearing these stories, even though everyone else seems to like them. Am I the problem here? What can I say to make my family understand how much their stories nauseate me?
A: It’s not a problem to ask your siblings to save the really explicitly gross emergency room stories for phone calls or video get-togethers you’re not present for. I wish they’d accommodate you! It’s not that difficult to postpone gross-out stories, and the whole “You need to toughen up, because you never know when you’re going to run into an emergency room doctor who needs to vent about bodily fluids on the spot” line strikes me as tenuous at best. It’s fine that the rest of the family enjoys these stories (provided they’re not offering identifying details or going out of their way to mock patients in vulnerable positions) and understandable that your sister and brother-in-law sometimes want to vent, but you’re not asking anything unusually difficult from them. That said, I think the best next move is to (cheerfully) announce that you’re going to step away from the call until the emergency room stories are over, then either remove your headphones and go make yourself a cup of coffee or mute them.
Q. Re: Is what’s mine yours? I would advise you to do two things: 1) Be clear on what could happen with this money should the marriage end. I know that’s not what you want to hear but it is always a good idea to protect yourself. 2) Find a fiduciary financial adviser to make sure you understand the various options for how to give money to his parents should you decide to do this. If they don’t know how to manage the investments, then a large gift could be squandered. Ongoing support might make more sense, if that’s what you decide to do. (Yes, I am a fiduciary advisor and know what could go wrong here.)
A: That’s really helpful, thank you—I was pretty focused on the communication aspect, but you’re quite right that it’s also important to be practical, both about what the giving itself would look like as well as how you would split gifts/assets/funds in the event of a divorce. That’s just as important as talking about your feelings, childhood, and definitions of “comfortable.”
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your help, everyone! I hope all your fights with your partners this week are about how to disburse sudden windfalls. See you next time!
From Care and Feeding
Q. This seems wrong: My mother-in-law lives several states away, so we see her just a few times a year. My 10-year-old daughter is her one and only grandchild. Of course, when she comes to town, I don’t want to block access to my daughter, but it has always made me uneasy that her time with all my in-laws has to be alone, something my husband shrugs off. My husband and I are pushed far to the side of all time when they are in town. When she came up several years ago a few weeks prior to Christmas, MIL had my daughter for the weekend and threw a “Christmas Morning” with my daughter and her other son. My husband and I were not invited. I explained to my husband I wasn’t OK with this for several reasons, including but not limited to: I want to see what she gets and take pictures, and am not OK with being out of the picture.
I thought we were on the same page, but when MIL came in a few weeks prior to my daughter’s birthday, she gave her all of her birthday gifts in private, despite the fact that I was throwing a family dinner for everyone at the end of the weekend. Husband says it’s no big deal, but he also went and cleaned the chicken coop the minute his mom showed up for the dinner, so I’m thinking he’s out of touch on the issue too. Am I crazy, or is this weird?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.