Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Foster siblings dating: “Chara” was my foster child from when she was 10 until she aged out of the system, although not consistently. Her mother was mentally ill, her grandmother was sick, and times were tough. She is 23 now. My son “Asher” is around the same age. The pair of them were thick as thieves and the only time Chara ever got in trouble was when my son got bullied and Chara went after the other kids, fists flying. I consider Chara my daughter. She calls me mom sometimes. Chara has lived with us on and off as an adult, but she lives like she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop (she will never completely unpack while here).
Asher announced that he is in love with Chara. They are engaged and have been secretly dating for “years.” My husband and I just told them congratulations, but I don’t know how to feel about this. I know this isn’t actually incest, but this is my son and my daughter. I keep wondering when and why this started. What did I overlook and dismiss as sibling affection? Does this matter? What happens if this relationship doesn’t work out? Will I lose one of my children?
I am on a waiting list to see a therapist. My husband doesn’t have a problem; he says Asher is just making Chara “officially” part of the family. Chara keeps testing me: Are you happy? Are you being honest? What do you really think? I am so afraid of slipping up. I have mixed feelings here, but I am terrified of damaging my relationship with Chara. Asher will fight with me, but I always know the foundation of our relationship. My relationship with Chara lives on quicksand. Please help.
A: That is a lot to process! I don’t wonder that you’re not sure how to feel, and your concerns seem eminently sensible to me. That’s not to say you should unload all of your feelings and concerns on Chara and Asher, nor that you should assume that “years” means “decades” and the two of them were secretly dating when they were kids living together. You can ask them some of these questions! Not like an inquisitor demanding “When did all this start, and have you thought about how badly things could go wrong?” but because “How did you two get together?’ is a perfectly common question to ask a couple. Presumably they have also given some thought as to what might happen if they break up, so even if they arrive at different conclusions than you might, you don’t have to worry you’re the only one who’s considered that possibility. You can also say to Chara, “My main priority is making sure that you know no matter what happens between you and Asher romantically, you’ll always be my family.”
Beyond that, you’ll need outlets for working through some of your more complicated feelings outside of your immediate family. Whether it’s a therapist or a close friend, it will help to know there’s someone you can talk to honestly without worrying you’ll hurt them or drive them away.
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Q. Should I be mad? My girlfriend and I have been together for nine years. Two years in, I was talking to other people on apps even though we were monogamous. She found out through a mutual friend of a woman I was talking to, and we broke up but got back together six months later. For the last six years-ish, we’ve been great and we live together.
The other night I woke up in the middle of the night, and she was scrolling through her phone. I didn’t think anything of it, because she has trouble sleeping. But the next morning, I noticed my phone was on a different screen. For the last few days she’s been friendly but distant. Once, for instance, she was supposed to be in a Zoom meeting, and I went into our bedroom and she was lying down. It looked like she had been crying. I asked her why she wasn’t on her call and she said she was “tired.”
I’m pissed that she probably went through my phone, but I don’t want to bring it up because one of the women I was talking to before we broke up recently added me on Instagram and messaged me. We had a brief and innocent conversation. I know that if my girlfriend saw the messages she would be hurt. After we got back together, I promised I would not have contact with the women I was talking to sexually while we were together. However, it’s been years since the infidelity and the conversation was innocent and I thought we were past all of this. We have each other’s phone passwords and will go on each other’s phones for practical things (like if she’s driving she might ask me to text someone our ETA, etc.) and privacy/boundaries have not been a concern. But now I’m annoyed that she would snoop when she’s usually so trusting, and I think it would raise red flags if I suddenly changed my phone password. Is there a way to bring up my annoyance without having to relive all of my past mistakes?
A: I think your question might be more aptly phrased as “Can I bring up something that bothers me while ensuring my girlfriend isn’t allowed to bring up the things that bother her?” If you suspect she was going through your phone, and your suspicions prove correct, you have every right to be frustrated with her for doing so. But you don’t know for sure that she has, and it’s possible that something else entirely has been bothering her, so don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve asked her about what’s going on.
I also feel obliged to point out that you didn’t promise your girlfriend “I won’t talk to this woman I’ve been flirting with again, unless years have passed and I unilaterally believe we’ve gotten ‘past’ this,” so your attempts to justify an obvious and straightforward violation of that promise feel pretty flimsy here. I don’t advise you to use that line with your girlfriend if you’re right and she is angry about that conversation. There’s a serious discussion to be had about rebuilding trust and establishing some sense of privacy even if you do occasionally and opportunistically borrow each other’s phones to get directions. But you won’t get there by minimizing or dismissing your girlfriend’s frustrations so you can only discuss yours.
Q. Don’t want to see my poison: A woman I knew, “Jan,” is using my image as part of her glow-up. She and I were co-workers that socialized casually, then she quickly became dependent on our friendship, including asking me to be in her wedding. I am a people-pleaser and agreed. We became closer and I helped her plan a lot of the wedding. Shortly after the wedding, Jan took to calling me many times a day, and if I didn’t answer or respond, she would call another of our co-workers, “Nancy,” who is even more of a people-pleaser. One day Nancy called me in a panic and said that Jan stated she would kill herself if Nancy did not spend the night there. I was very aware of this effort because Jan has used it before to manipulate others. I told Nancy to call 911 if Jan is threatening suicide. At that time, I placed a lot of distance between myself and Jan, as her behavior had become very toxic. I just cut contact. Jan quit her job soon after.
Now Jan has begun to make huge improvements that I have seen on social media, and I am so happy for her. She ended her toxic marriage, lost a lot of weight, and began to work on herself a lot. It is amazing to see Jan doing well. Where I struggle is Jan is posting motivational pictures and videos of herself, documenting her improvement. I am heavily featured in one of the videos, drinking with Jan. I used to have a severe substance abuse problem and seeing this video is difficult for me; additionally, as they are public, the videos could potentially be damaging to my career. How do I ask Jan to not use this video of me as her low point? We have not spoken in nearly two years and I want to be mature and respectful of Jan’s progress, and her desire to show it off.
A: Let’s dispense entirely with the idea that “losing a ton of weight” means you have to “respect” Jan’s decision to post videos of you getting drunk without your consent. It does not. It’s not “immature” to say, “Please take down this video of me; it’s a painful reminder of my addiction and you do not have my permission to post it.” Her decision to document her “improvement” at your expense is not necessary to her continued well-being, and you have every right to ask her to take it down.
Q. Dog fight: I live in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors apparently skipped town, leaving their roommate in the lurch for rent and facing eviction. The landlord let them break their lease, but they had to be out in a week. I was sympathetic and helped them pack up. The ex-roommate had left behind the cutest little pooch, and my neighbor was tearing up about having to take him to the pound. All the rescue centers were full and no one wanted him. I took the dog. This was over a month and a half ago.
Then I got someone slamming on my door. I opened it up but with the chain lock. It was the former neighbor. They were mad that all their stuff was gone and someone else was in “their” apartment. They had seen my pooch in the window and demanded him back. I told them to go away. I was scared because they stuck their arm through the crack and were gripping the door so I couldn’t close it. They started to scream and swear at me and threatened to call the cops. I told them to leave or I would call the cops myself. They left. I went to the vet and had the dog microchipped in my name and I registered him with the city. The entire incident left me shook up.
I told all this to my friends over our monthly gaming session, and a few of them told me that I had “basically” stolen this dog. I replied that this wasn’t a runaway or a lost pet, that this person had abandoned this dog and screwed over their friend, and there was no excuse for either of those things. If I hadn’t saved the dog, he would be dead. The pound doesn’t keep dogs long in our area. One of my friends replied that only the “guilty get so defensive.” That remark caused a fight with another friend and now there are sore feelings. This has left me unsettled. Help.
A: People get defensive for all kinds of reasons; it’s not necessarily an indicator of anything but defensiveness. Do you have a strong sense of why this neighbor “skipped town,” and what prompted their return? Presumably your neighbor who had to break their lease attempted to get in contact with their former roommate—do you have any sense of how much effort they put into trying to find out what their ex-roommate wanted? Was there a family emergency? If you feel secure that this person abandoned their pet without any extenuating circumstances and didn’t take any reasonable/possible steps to ensure someone else could look out for it, then I think you should (nondefensively) defend your position, and rest secure in it.
Q. Am I a fool? I’ve been together with my husband “John” for eight years and married for three, but I’ve come to the realization tonight that my husband might not love me. See, even in the romantic whirlwind of our initial courtship, my husband was always the more passive one—I always had to take the lead planning dates. But it just got worse as time went on. When I got into grad school, I dropped hints like crazy that I wanted to get married, but he didn’t seem to have any sort of drive to do anything about it. So, I’m ashamed to say, I engineered my own proposal for him. I even made the arrangements at the romantic mountain retreat.
Fast forward to all these years later, and while he has definitely been a great support through some trials and tribulations in my life, I can count on one hand the number of times he has initiated sex in the past year. He routinely forgets our anniversary and doesn’t know my phone number. He’s never been actively cruel or strayed, but part of me truly believes my face could be swapped with any other woman’s and he wouldn’t notice. I feel like I brought this on myself by making us get married. It’s to the point I’m seriously contemplating divorce because being alone would be better than hurting myself with this fantasy that my husband loves me. Am I a jerk for thinking like this? Or am I just reaping the consequences of my own pathetic actions?
A: This sounds extremely painful and you have all my sympathy, but I think it will help to scale some of the intensity back here. You’re rushing to beat yourself up, but you didn’t make your husband marry you, even if he is the “more passive one.” And before you decide to file for divorce, I think it’s important (necessary, even) to try to get a sense of your husband’s actual interior emotional state by asking him direct questions. Have you ever asked him about his relationship to sex and initiation, or have you just assumed that if he doesn’t initiate it, it’s because he doesn’t really love you? Does he know just how isolated and unsure of his love you’ve been feeling? It may be that your husband is indifferent, or it may be that what you consider “great support” he considers avowals of love. None of that’s to say, by the way, that you must remain married to him if his response is simply “Anniversaries and phone numbers don’t mean much to me, but I do love you very much.” If the two of you have wildly different understandings of what avowal and demonstration of affection look like, if his ideal marriage is one where you feel painfully unwanted, you may decide to divorce after all. But before you make any decisions, you’ve got to talk to him about how you’re feeling and what you wish you had together. You won’t know what’s a “fantasy” and what isn’t without concrete discussion.
Q. Family reunion, or life ruin: When I was little, I had an uncle who lived on the other side of the country who I probably only met once or twice. The only thing I remember about him was that he was an English professor. My dad used to send him stories I wrote, and he would write back and tell me how much he enjoyed them. I eventually stopped hearing about him and getting letters from him, and I didn’t really think anything of it at the time.
I just found out that my whole family cut him off when they found out he was gay. I feel terrible, and kind of complacent—even though I was only 7, I didn’t really question why we stopped talking. I kind of want to reach out and let him know that I didn’t know this whole time and that someone in his family supports him living his truth. But is that presumptuous? Triggering for him? It was a decade ago and he probably spent a lot of time healing, and I’m basically a stranger now, even if we’re related.
Is there a way to let him know I don’t agree with our family and want to connect with him, but if he doesn’t want to talk to me he doesn’t have to? I would also have to keep it a secret from my parents until I graduate or they’ll kick me out too, so I don’t want him to feel like a dirty secret or something. I found the email and office number for a professor with his name on a university site, but there’s no picture, and that’s all I can find.
A: This is a lovely sentiment, and not at all presumptuous. You were 7 years old at the time, and no one told you what was really going on; I can’t imagine your uncle has held you in the least responsible for your family’s homophobia. If you want to wait until graduation to get in touch, that might make the idea of speaking to him again feel a little less fraught, but it’s entirely up to you. Whenever you feel prepared to safely make contact, you should give it a try—I think you can expect a warm response. I’m so sorry you lost out on so many years with your uncle, and wish you all the best in getting safely away from your parents after you graduate.
Q. When to break up when we just had a kid? I am a straight woman. I have been on-again, off-again with my partner of almost 10 years. He is a good person and I love his family but I have known for a long time that he is not the right person for me, for a variety of reasons. Mainly I have known for a long time that I’m just not in love with him, though I do care about him a lot.
I had been thinking about breaking it off once and for all in March 2020. Then in April—in the pandemic—I found out I was accidentally pregnant. It was a happy surprise for both of us and a real blessing in a very difficult time. I am 38 years old; I didn’t think I would ever get the chance to be a parent. I stuck it out with my partner this year, and we adore our baby daughter.
But although I am very happy with motherhood, I still know deep in my heart he is not the right one for me. I have gone over this so, so many times in my head and have seen a therapist for several years, and I just can’t convince myself anymore that he is the right person. We are just not compatible, and I am incredibly tired of just hanging on to someone who I don’t love.
I’m not sure what I’m asking exactly, but I guess—is it unethical for me to say goodbye to this relationship after just giving birth a few months ago? I definitely want to be the best parents to our daughter we can be, but I really want to find someone who I can really feel in love with.
A: I’m not sure “unethical” is the word here! It might hurt your partner, and it might make co-parenting your daughter more difficult, if only at first, but people break up all the time, including once they’ve had children, and life goes on. There’s no guarantee that breaking up with him will mean you’ll definitely find someone to really feel in love with (or that said love will last), but presumably you are already aware that dating is unpredictable and are willing to take the risk. You’ve been putting off this decision for several years at least. Unless there’s a part of you that wants to talk this out with him and try something new (and it doesn’t sound like there is), it’s only going to get messier and more inconvenient the longer you put it off.
Q. Is there a tactful way to convince my friend to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine? I have a close friend who is in her 30s who would likely be eligible for the vaccine because of her BMI. However, she hasn’t made any indication to me that she knows she is eligible. She is sometimes a bit self-conscious about her weight, so I wonder if she doesn’t want to get the vaccine because she feels ashamed. However, she works in retail and interacts with the public a lot. Retail workers are not eligible for the vaccine in our state even though they have to interact with the public a lot. Although I don’t think the BMI is a good indicator of health, I also don’t want my friend to get sick because she interacts with so many people at her job. Is there any tactful way to bring this up or to ask her if she needs help registering for a vaccine? I’ve been trying to be more body positive and not let our fatphobic society make me feel bad about my weight or getting the vaccine, but I know she may not feel the same.
A: If this is your only friend whose vaccine eligibility status you’ve been worrying about, and if it’s solely because you know she’s “self-conscious” about her weight and have tried to mentally calculate her BMI, I’d encourage you to redirect that energy into volunteering with local organizations helping schedule vaccine appointments for those who need assistance. You can ask your friends if they need any help figuring out their eligibility or scheduling an appointment, but I think you should ask everyone, not just her, and if they demur, leave it alone. That’s it!
Q. Re: Should I be mad? The older I get, the more I readily I think that snooping is justified if you find something. Snooping all the time = crummy and not a great relationship regardless. Snooping when you have a hunch and being correct = just fine.
A: It sometimes gets one what one wants! I’ll go so far as to say it can sometimes be effective, and sometimes results in one feeling like they have the moral high ground, but I don’t think that quite adds up to “just fine,” either.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help today, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Parents who fight: My wife and I fight a lot. We try to keep perspective. For instance, it’s hard to imagine that any couple with two stressful full-time jobs, little kids, and limited resources wouldn’t be fighting a bunch. At a minimum, on a Monday morning, fighting can sometimes seem necessary just to push away the exhaustion and start moving. We’re not like the people on Facebook. We don’t get vacations.
Surely every parenting expert (I’m skeptical that such a person exists) avers that yelling in the house, in front of the kids, between a loving couple, is absolutely not OK. And yet I remain not wholly convinced. Could there be a family who is perfect in resolving differences? If so, it must be because they amicably separated years ago. Yelling isn’t pretty or healthy (whatever) but I consider it part of relationship life.
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