Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My sister is dating a superstar in secret: My sister “Simone” lives abroad and has for almost five years. She has been in a relationship with “Jay” for almost three years, but we only met him last fall. Jay is a public figure, and for career reasons, he must be perceived as being single. He is under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, and from what I understand, Simone has signed several NDAs. Jay’s employers only recently allowed her to disclose his identity to us. Simone adores Jay, and Jay seems to love her right back. I get the impression it’s been very difficult to keep him a secret from our parents, other sisters, and me. At the same time, she’s terrified someone from our family will accidentally disclose Jay’s identity and “ruin everything.”
This has raised some concerns for me about their relationship. I worry about Simone’s identity being revealed. People associated with Jay and others in his position are scrutinized to an intense degree, and others who’ve been found wanting have been intensely bullied. I also don’t know how to calm Simone’s fears that someone in our family will ruin everything. I have been asked to keep Simone and Jay a secret from my own partner. As happy as I want to be for Simone, I wish I was still in the dark. I don’t know how to talk to Simone about any of this, because previous concerns have been dismissed as “you just don’t understand” how things in Jay’s industry work. Should I keep my mouth shut? I’m just worried for Simone.
A: If you’ve agreed to keep this relationship confidential, even though you wish you hadn’t been told in the first place, then the right thing to do is to keep your mouth shut, at least when it comes to revealing her boyfriend’s identity to anyone else. That doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut all of the time, however; you can tell Simone that you’re not available to hear her concerns about someone else “ruining everything” when you yourself are under considerable strain keeping the secret for her. Her anxiety and distress may be very real on that subject, but that doesn’t mean you’re an appropriate outlet for them.
Regardless of Jay’s professional commitments (and without knowing more, I can’t personally adjudicate how reasonable I think these strictures on his personal life are), if she’s made the decision to share information about him with a small group of people, it’s incumbent on her not to burden those people with repetitive monologues about how they’ll ruin her life if they ever spill the beans. Beyond that, I’d encourage you to be gracious about your sister’s feelings without feeling personally responsible for them. This may be a mistake (or even simply a decision you yourself would not make in her position; no matter how wonderful the guy, there’s got to be a limit on how much that can make up for the downsides of a modern morganatic relationship), but it gets to be hers to make.
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Q. Dog money: I have a small side gig where I do pet portraits. My stepsister has three dogs she spoils rotten and wanted three separate individual portraits. I should have stopped when she argued with me about the price, that I needed to give her a “family discount” and then only had enough money for a third of the cost. I did the first portrait and my stepsister was delighted but refused to pay. She tried to argue with me about the price again. I reminded her of our agreement—it was in the texts—and she persisted. So I gave her the money back and took back the painting. My stepsister was furious and I made her leave. Then I went upstairs and I heard the backdoor slam. I looked out the window to see my stepsister leaving with the painting! She was difficult growing up, but I didn’t think she would be a thief!
I texted her to return the painting. She didn’t respond, so I copied our texts into the family chat and told everyone how my stepsister tried to cheat me and stole from me. Everyone got angry with her, but my stepmother tried to sweep it under the rug by paying for the portrait. I was tired by this point and accepted. A month passed and then my stepsister called me wondering when I was going to do the rest of the paintings! I told her she was out of her mind if she thought I would ever do anything for her again. She got very upset. Now our parents are offering to pay me, even double my rates. I asked them what the hell was going on here—my stepsister’s behavior is just bizarre and our parents stepping in and babying her is even weirder. My father told me it wasn’t any of my business and to just take the money. All us kids are in our early 20s and have been out of the house for years, but live in the same city. What should I do? I could use the money but this situation just stinks.
A: Unless your parents are offering to pay you an absolutely disgusting sum of money, the money just can’t be worth this headache. (Out of curiosity, how much money do readers think would be enough for them to overlook this level of family drama? I’ve got a number in my head …) “You’re right, this isn’t any of my business; I’m going to keep my painting work and my family life separate from now on” should be your go-to response if anyone else tries to push this line with you again. It is weird, but you don’t have to put up with it—and you certainly don’t have to convince any of your relatives of the rightness of your position in order to maintain this boundary. Just say no and cut off any conversations that start tending in the direction of “Now about those other two paintings …”
Q. My wife isn’t cheating: My wife and I no longer have sex because I am unable to. But I didn’t want her to have to be sexually unsatisfied because of my medical issues, so I suggested that perhaps she could discreetly take a lover or two, and as long as it was sex only, I was OK with it. My wife always had a much higher sex drive than me, so once she saw that I was truly OK with it, she agreed. The first time was a little awkward but suffice to say, this arrangement worked out great for us; my wife was satisfied, happy, pleasant, and even more loving toward me, and I found that I even enjoyed hearing of her sexual adventures, kind of living vicariously through her and him.
Well, one time while out meeting a lover, my wife was spied at the hotel by someone that knows us. This person decided to “confront” me with her discovery. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I pretended to be surprised but tried not to make a big deal of it. However, my wife’s reputation is now taking a big hit as this “friend” spread her gossip around the town. I am devastated. My spouse is such a wonderful person, perfect wife, and mom (we have two sons), and in our eyes, she did nothing wrong. I’d hate for our sons to hear anything vicious about their mother. But my dilemma is this: Do I tell people that I am unable to have sex with her myself and I am OK with the arrangement of her being with other men, or do I let these vicious gossips continue to smear my wife’s reputation ? Do I tell my wife? I am totally at a loss of what to do.
A: You should certainly tell your wife, who’s going to find out at some point that everyone in town is gossiping about her, and it will be better for her to hear it from you than to come home one day having been blindsided at the grocery store. Tell her immediately, and apologize for throwing her under the bus by pretending to be surprised instead of telling your friend to mind their own business.
You certainly don’t owe busybodies or random acquaintances details about your marriage, but I do think you’ll make life a lot easier for yourself and your wife if you go back to that “helpful” friend who’s “helping” you by gossiping widely and correct their mistaken impression. Again, you don’t have to go into unnecessary details about your medical condition or the types of conversations you and your wife have had. All you have to say is, “I should have been honest with you when you first approached me, but everything you saw was agreed-upon and consistent in my marriage. In the future, please don’t bring me any helpful hints about my wife—I love her and I’m proud of her, and she’s done nothing wrong.” Don’t let people attack your wife for having lied to you when you know perfectly well she hasn’t.
Q. Confederate conundrum: I am (unfortunately) related to a major Confederate general. A piece of memorabilia (think the butt of someone’s rifle from a significant battle) has been passed down and engraved with the name of the eldest male in my family since the Civil War. I’m the next in line, and I don’t want my name engraved on it. I don’t really want it at all. My grandfather had my father’s name engraved on it well before he died, and I’m concerned my parents will do the same thing to me. I am very close with my parents, but they haven’t thought through the racist implications of participating in this legacy. I want to talk to them about this constructively. How can I tell my parents that I do not want my name on this object without offending my father? Is it bad form to give it to a museum without offering it to my cousins first?
A: Telling your parents you don’t want your name carved into an actual weapon used to champion the Confederacy is important; making sure your father isn’t offended that you don’t want your name carved into, again, an actual weapon used to champion the Confederacy is not important. “I don’t want my name engraved on Confederate memorabilia. Don’t do it. I should have told you this years ago, and I’m ashamed it took me this long to come out against it. That was cowardly of me.” It’s not that it’s “bad form” to offer half an old rifle to a museum; it’s that donating a piece of Confederate memorabilia that you haven’t yet inherited is no substitute for an honest conversation with your parents about your feelings about the Confederacy. Have that honest conversation first. Reject that part of your heritage comfortably and straightforwardly. Your parents should reconsider their commitment to this tradition too, and if that means allowing them to feel discomfort over their past choices as a spur to change, then that discomfort is a good thing.
But come on—this is not a conundrum. Your family’s been adding the names of every firstborn son to a Confederate gun. That’s a bad thing. You should stop.
Q. Lost my religion: I have been Zooming with a group of girls with whom I grew up. As children and young adults, we were all practicing Christians. Since then, some have become more religious, while I have stopped believing in God. It has taken many years of “soul-searching” for me to become comfortable with my current lack of religious belief, but I know I can never go back.
The problem is that our conversations often include requests to pray for people going through difficult times, or some people comment on current events by saying things like “God works in mysterious ways.” I feel hypocritical just nodding along, but I also don’t think a casual Zoom gathering is the forum for revealing my agnosticism. And I certainly don’t want to offend these lovely people. I have “come out” to only one other member of this group, who is also agnostic. Any advice? Speak up or keep silent?
A: Speak up, by all means! If you don’t want to do it over Zoom in a group setting—and I certainly can understand why that doesn’t appeal—then talk to the rest of them individually. Consider what you want to ask of them. It may be that during these group conversations they’ll still offer prayer requests to one another (which is understandable, given that most of them do share a common religion), but if they’re able to respect your nonparticipation and don’t try to proselytize to you, it might make those moments feel a lot less weighty to know that everyone understands your position. They’re free to continue meditating on the mysteriousness of God if it’s meaningful to them, and you’re free to establish a worldview that makes sense to you—you don’t have to ask them to stop thinking of God as inscrutable in order to respect you. It might be sad for you if they do take the news badly, especially if they try to take it upon themselves to win you back to the faith, but at least then you’ll have it all out in the open and can decide which friendships you want to try to salvage, and which ones you want to withdraw from. Good luck; I hope they can be respectful and kind once they know more about your agnosticism, and if not, at least you have a fellow agnostic who might want to join you in having more secularly minded conversations.
Q. Naked: My sister had been crashing with me in my one-bedroom apartment since she lost her job. She was spending weekends at her new boyfriend’s. I enjoy the solitude and sometimes wander around just in panties. This is my place.
So my sister “forgot” to tell me she was coming back early and bringing her boyfriend over. He opened the door first and got an eyeful of everything while I was eating cookie dough in the kitchen. I screamed, he yelped, and we both ran and slammed our respective doors. I have never been so humiliated in my life. I texted my sister and she blamed me for being naked, so I told her to get her things and get the hell out of my apartment. She pounded on my bedroom door and screamed that I had to be kidding. I screamed back and told her to leave. My sister left with her suitcase and has been bouncing between her boyfriend’s and friends’. I went ahead and had the landlord change the locks.
I am getting everyone in my life telling me I am overreacting, that my sister made a “mistake,” and really why was I standing around naked in the first place? I am sick of having to justify myself while everyone lets my sister off the hook for the barest of common courtesies! She wasn’t paying rent or any bills and I don’t want her around, plus I don’t want to have to make small talk with her boyfriend especially knowing he saw my breasts. What do I do here?
A: Your sister got angry with you for relaxing in your own apartment when you had good reason to think no one would be home for a long time; that’s unreasonable and rude. It would have been relatively easy, I think, for both of them to apologize for not giving you notice they were coming over and would not require her to have put on a hair shirt. A simple “I shouldn’t have intruded—we should have texted or at least knocked first, and I’m so sorry for violating your privacy and making you feel embarrassed” would have gone a long way toward smoothing things over, even if it wouldn’t make small talk feel immediately comfortable again.
There’s no reason for anyone else to offer you their opinions about how you should handle surprise visits, so feel free to decline to listen to any more of them. Your sister is no better or worse off than she was before, since she’s still staying in various guest rooms. You two hadn’t signed a lease together or entered a verbal agreement about sharing a home for a long time, so while the disruption was sudden, it wasn’t as if it interfered with serious long-term plans. Hopefully you two can make up once you’ve both had the chance to get some distance from that afternoon, and she’ll be able to relax her defenses long enough to apologize, but it’s fine to object to how she handled the situation, and it’s equally fine to let her live with friends.
Q. Not Southern: One of my housemates has started using a Southern accent (think “bless your heart,” ladies who lunch–meets–preacher vibes). Neither of us are from the South and we don’t live in the South. It’s driving me crazy, especially because it seems to get thicker when she watches sports and yells at the TV. To be clear, I have no issues with actual people who actually speak with a Southern accent, but her “Southern” voice is over-the-top and so not true to her actual life. How do I get her to speak the way she actually talks? This is just bizarre.
A: Just ask her to cut it out! You don’t have to convince her that it’s “not true” to her actual life or try to litigate how she yells at the TV during sports games (unless she’s doing it at all hours or late at night, at which point you might also want her to cut down on those one-sided conversations), but if she’s adopting an over-the-top accent in everyday conversation and it bothers you, all you have to say is, “Would you mind not doing that accent while we’re talking?” Once you’ve addressed it on your own behalf, I’d encourage you to pick your battles. If every once in a while you hear her talking to herself in a syrupy Foghorn Leghorn voice, but it’s relatively quiet and you don’t have to respond to it, just chalk it up to idiosyncrasy or a weird coping strategy after a weird pandemic year. But you certainly can, and should, let her know it’s annoying when she uses it with you.
Q. Re: Dog money: Contracts lawyer here: In most states, you and your sister created a contract through the texts. When I have bad or difficult clients, I either just refuse to do any more work for them, or give them such an outrageous hourly rate that it is worth it. I also make them give me a large (think five figures) retainer in advance so that I know I will get paid. That said, I think it’s not a good idea to work with people who are that much trouble. As a mentor once said, “Don’t let clients live in your brain rent free.”
A: I do hope this doesn’t end up in small-claims court, although I must confess that I would certainly watch an episode of Judge Judy about relatives fighting over dog portraits. Based on the general reaction, I think it would be better for the letter writer to adopt a “no commissions for relatives” policy than hoping an outrageous retainer will deter them, but it’s good to think about how much money might make the headache personally worth it. I suppose if you know someone who’s got five figures to spend on a pet portrait(!), it makes sense that some would at least be tempted to take the headache with it.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your help, everyone! May all of your relationships with your pet portraitists run smoothly this week.
From Care and Feeding
Can I throw out the filthy toy monkey my 4-year-old daughter lugs around 24/7 and tell her he ran away? I know you’re going to tell me I can’t, but I’m just so tired of frantically searching for the thing and reaping the whirlwind when it gets left at her sitter’s by mistake.
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.
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