Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Baby, not grandchild: Our oldest daughter is nearing 40 and frustrated by her lack of prospects in having a husband, a home, and a child. Her standards are profoundly high: must make six figures, be 6 feet tall, and no previous marriages or children. She is divorced herself. She is a very driven career woman and works 60 hour weeks regularly.
She announced to her father and me that she will be proceeding forward as a single mother and getting a sperm donation. We were happy but hesitant. That quickly turned to horror when our daughter told us she was looking to move back home with us. Her expectations were that I would be taking care of the baby while she continued her career normally. I love my children and I love my grandchildren, but I am done raising babies. My husband and I are nearing retirement and have plans that do not include diapers and midnight feedings.
We told our daughter this would not be possible and she became upset. She accused us of being “selfish” and denying her the chance of being a mother. My husband lost his temper and told her the only one who was being selfish here was her. She is the one making the choice to have a child and demanding everyone rearrange their lives over it. At this point, our daughter is no longer talking to us but is speaking to her siblings. She is proceeding with her plan and has an appointment at a clinic. If this works, this will be our first biological grandchildren (our son married a woman with older children). It breaks my heart that we might miss this. We tried reaching out to our daughter but no response. She can carry a grudge to the grave. What can we do here?
A: Stay open and available to the possibility of a future reconciliation. Beyond that, there’s not much you can do, I’m afraid. You had every right, and good reason, to cheerfully decline your daughter’s unilateral decision that you and your husband would act as full-time co-parents just as you reached retirement age. Even if you could win her “forgiveness” by taking that decision back now, I would not encourage you to do so. But you can’t force her to forgive you, even though I believe there’s nothing for her to forgive, and you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to leverage the biological relationship against either your daughter or your other children in the hopes that it’ll get you what you want.
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Q. Unintentionally emotionally abusive: My partner of three years recently broke up with me because of lingering hurt feelings from a sexual relationship I had when we were on a break. The split was amicable, but in the week since we’ve been broken up, I’ve realized that a lot of my behavior toward him has been emotionally abusive. I never put him down, called him names, or isolated him from loved ones. However, I did frequently disregard his concerns about issues in our relationship and ask him to explain in detail every time he brought up problems (I usually didn’t remember), which made him feel irrational. We got together at a very vulnerable point in his life. How do I apologize to him and stop these behaviors? We’d initially said that we might get back together, but I’m concerned that any relationship we have will have this power dynamic. If it’s relevant, we’re both in our early 20s.
A: You two only recently broke up, and it’s only been a week since you’ve started asking yourself if you were in fact applying unfair pressure to your ex when you previously thought you were experiencing garden-variety conflict. Don’t overwhelm a fresh breakup with half-thought-through fears before you’ve even had the chance to get some real space from each other. These are questions to work through with a therapist and a handful of trusted friends—did you dismiss your partner’s concerns about “issues” in your relationship (which issues?) because you genuinely disagreed with said concerns? Where can you note distinctions between disagreements, mutually exclusive interests, hurt feelings, indifference, and abusive behavior patterns? Did you ask him to explain his problems in detail because you wished to tire him out and abandon his grievances? Because you wanted him to begin to doubt his sense of reality, and believed that asking a series of leading questions might cause him to do so? What details did you “usually not remember,” and do you have any sense of why that might be? What do you believe you owe someone else during “vulnerable periods” in their lives that you do not owe them during other periods—and how do you characterize the extent, duration, or scope of someone else’s vulnerabilities? You may discover, after careful thought, that you have acted badly; or precipitously, you may find that you deliberately caused your ex unnecessary emotional harm, that you acted sometimes sincerely and sometimes manipulatively; it’s also possible that you may come to consider your behavior emotionally abusive. I don’t want to rule out any of those possibilities, although nothing you’ve described here strikes me as absolutely final and definitive. But causing someone distress does not always rise to the level of abuse, and it may be useful to seek to distinguish the two, if only so you can better resolve to act differently in the future.
The fact that you two have previously mentioned the possibility of getting back together at some point is not a binding promise. You may decide, for any number of reasons, that that’s not a good decision for either of you. But nor should you take this vague sense of unease as a reason to immediately declare to your freshly minted ex that you’ve been committing emotional abuse, especially since you haven’t run that theory past another living person. Take careful, methodical inventory of your behavior in this relationship, and seek expert counsel as you do so. Give your ex room to mourn this breakup, and don’t try to have a big-picture conversation about conflict and abuse (or whether you should ever get back together, which I agree doesn’t seem like a good idea) until you’ve both had more time to reflect.
Q. Cousin’s streaming reality away: My cousin “L,” whom I was raised with, began livestreaming last fall due to the pandemic affecting her work and social life. She quickly found success as she is naturally witty, talkative, outgoing, and good at video games. She was networking and made a lot of friends on the platform and even gained some sponsorships! I am truly happy for her success, but it’s coming at a great cost—her real day-to-day life.
Her streaming consumes her day. She streams almost 12 hours a day, and has stopped socializing outside of the platform entirely. She makes less than $1,000 per month from it, in a high cost-of-living state. She refuses to speak to her husband while she’s on, breaks just to eat dinner, and neglects her marriage until he goes to bed.
L’s husband reached out to me concerned because she has completely prioritized her streaming and stopped looking for a new job. The streaming doesn’t pay the bills, and she spends more than she earns in “supporting other streamers,” while debt racks up. I had no idea that their financial situation had gotten so bad, and I’ve bailed them (more so, L herself) out financially before. That’s not an option now, and her husband didn’t ask, but being presented the full picture, I started questioning her husband, and their marriage is now failing because she feels he’s jealous. She’s not entirely wrong—he is a bit jealous—but that’s not his motives for reaching out to me.
After an hourslong conversation with L’s husband, we concluded that L is using streaming to tick her social boxes, which we support, but that she’s also using it to avoid a job search and that it’s actually damaging her mental health. Without going into too much detail—she has a lot of trauma she’s never truly addressed (some of it we share) and has never genuinely pursued therapy for it. She was doing “well” until the pandemic derailed her rather average but well-paying career. After speaking so candidly with her husband and giving him my insights as someone who’s been on most of her journey with her, we’ve concluded the only real option we have is to sit L down and tell her she needs help, and that while we support her streaming, we’d like to see her prioritize working on herself over chatting to a bunch of “yes people” on the internet.
Her husband and I are of the same mind: If the marriage fails, it fails, but she needs to address WHY it’s failing and the trauma that she is using streaming to avoid processing. Is there any way we can have this conversation with her without completely pushing her away from us? Because we both just want to see her become “L” again, not just her internet persona.
A: I can’t imagine that a joint intervention on the state of her marriage featuring not only her husband but also her cousin is going to bring L closer to either of you. That’s not to say your concerns aren’t legitimate, but having an “hourslong” conversation with her husband where the two of you swapped theories about her trauma seems designed to put L on the defensive. It would have been better to encourage her husband to talk to her directly rather than spend hours discussing her perceived shortcomings with him yourself. That’s still your best option now, I think. Saying, “You’re spending 12 hours a day on a hobby that doesn’t pay the bills instead of looking for work, and that needs to change or I can’t stay in this marriage” is one thing. Saying, “You’re spending 12 hours a day on a hobby that doesn’t pay the bills instead of looking for work, and I insist that you agree you’re doing this as a direct result of childhood trauma and start discussing said trauma immediately” is asking an awful lot of someone, even someone who’s been behaving badly.
It’s clear that you care about your cousin, and I don’t mean to fault you for being worried about her husband or the state of their marriage; you don’t have to pretend to be completely neutral here. But the state of their finances is something they need to discuss honestly and directly together. If you want to follow up that conversation by saying you share her husband’s concerns and ask her if she truly feels what she’s doing is financially or emotionally sustainable, you certainly have grounds to do so. Just don’t put yourself in the middle of a conversation they need to have as a couple first.
Q. Feeling babied: I’m a university student who lives at home. For the most part, my parents and I get along great, but my dad has this really irritating habit of micromanaging me when I do basic chores. For example, if I’m washing the dishes, he’ll stand over me and give me “advice” on which ones need soaking, as if I can’t figure that out for myself. This isn’t an occasional thing; it happens several times a week. I know that my dad will always see me as his kid. But I’m a grown woman and I’m getting very sick of being treated like I don’t know how to do simple household tasks (that I’ve been executing just fine for years)! How do I get him to step back and let me do this on my own?
A: There’s a balance to be struck between acknowledging how your father might like certain things done as long as you’re staying in your parents’ house, and letting him know that the hovering is unnecessary and uncomfortable. “Let me know if there’s something in particular you want me to bear in mind with [whatever chore you’re working on], but once you’ve told me what to look out for, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t stand over my shoulder. I’m happy to let you take over, or show me the way you’d best like it done once, but it drives me a little nuts to hear a running commentary. Does that sound fair?”
Q. Am I single if I have a kink partner? About three years ago, I met a kink partner online. We see each other about once a week or every two weeks, text all the time, and go out to dinner occasionally. We don’t really want to blend our social or family lives. We aren’t monogamous and I could feasibly meet someone else, but I’m quite happy with this arrangement.
However, I’m not sure what to tell my family when they ask about my love life. I don’t feel single but I also don’t feel coupled. I’ve answered “I don’t have a serious partner” before, but it just leads to more probing. I don’t want to tell them I have a kink partner either.
A: I wish there was an answer that always shut down all family probing! I’m afraid that there isn’t one—or at least if there is, I haven’t landed on it yet. “Nothing serious” is a perfectly sound answer. You can just keep repeating it until you sound so mind-numbingly boring that your relatives give up in frustration, or you can say something like, “If there’s ever someone you need to know about or might get a chance to meet, I promise I’ll let you know.” But you’re also entitled to say, “This probing is driving me crazy—please stop. Maybe you think it’s fun or cute, but it actually makes me feel really hounded, and I’d appreciate it if you’d just stick to one or two questions about my dating life instead of trying to play detective.”
Q. Father seems controlling through money: My father has been offering to provide me with money for nearly two years. He knows I am in need of help to get my life on track after a long derailment period. He sees me working hard nearly every day and how much things have changed positively for me. He knows how much it would help me. He kept saying that “once his house sold,” he would give me X dollars. This was all his idea; I did not ask for this money.
The house sold almost six months ago. We were texting a few weeks ago about something unrelated and I finally said, “How about you stop dangling the money and just give it to me so you can stop holding it over me?” He called me selfish, ungrateful, and self-centered. He has since refused to answer my phone calls or text messages.
I’m not sure what to do. I would like to believe he will come around and do what he’s been saying he will do for a long time—provide the money. Yet I worry it’s just going to be a lot more nonsense from him, and that he was just using this as a means to “keep me close” or “keep a semblance of control over me.” Any advice on dealing with a parent like this?
A: I’d start by encouraging you to take every promise of cash that your father offers with a grain of salt! You could continue to believe he will “come around” and give you X dollars in a timely fashion. But what reason would you have for believing this, other than “I really wish it were true”? Assume you’re never going to see the money and act accordingly. Your relationship with your father may continue to prove challenging, but at least you won’t base your financial plans for the future on it.
Q. I’m the noisy neighbor: My partner and I live in an NYC apartment and just adopted a 10-week-old puppy. She’s mostly been fantastic—smart, snuggly, mostly leaves the cat alone—but crate training has been a little rough, and she struggles to go back to sleep at night after waking up. It’s all normal for a puppy her age, and we’re honestly OK with the lost sleep, but this morning I overheard my neighbor yelling into her phone about how “the little dog barks and barks and barks; it has to go.” We really don’t want to be that neighbor, but we’re not sure how to address the issue: Puppies cry at night, we’re doing everything we can to work on this, and it’s going to take some time for her to sleep through the night. How do we keep our puppy and keep the peace?
A: Knock on your neighbor’s door, introduce yourself if you haven’t already met, say that you’re the neighbors who just got a new puppy and you wanted to apologize in case the barking has been keeping her up. That won’t necessarily solve any potential problems in the future, but at least you’ll be able to let her know who to talk to about the dog, and hopefully go some way toward soothing her frustrations. (Anyone with practical tips on getting a puppy to sleep or at least stay relatively peaceful in their kennel at night, feel free to chime in!)
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
I was quite surprised last weekend when my eighth-grade daughter was invited to a coed party last weekend that the parents knew about, but for which they weren’t present. I did not think to ask if parents were present, and my daughter genuinely did not know this would be the case. My daughter is not inclined to get into trouble, and nothing happened at the party—when I arrived to pick her up, the kids had just sat down to a game of truth or dare. The following weekend, the same kid had another party, approved by the parents, with no supervision. The kid is a responsible, good kid, but I am alarmed by parents at this age allowing an unsupervised party. I did not let my daughter go. I believe that she’s at too much risk to be put in an uncomfortable situation. Apparently, I’m the only one who objected to the party.
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.