Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Dating Mr. Almost-Always Right: I am in a three-year relationship with a wonderful, caring, and considerate man. He is truly the love of my life, and we are a great team. The issue arises in that when he gives me advice or provides feedback on a situation, he is usually (almost without fail) correct about how the situation will play out. He can predict the behavior of other people with uncanny accuracy, outline what he believes the outcome of a situation will be, and it unfolds like he is psychic. We have had a couple instances now in our relationship where if I had only listened to him, I would have avoided serious issues in my interactions with others and saved myself a lot of trouble. There are other instances where, against his own judgment on the matter, my boyfriend took my advice and ended up with a bad outcome he would have otherwise avoided. And, when I do listen to his advice, the outcome is usually very favorable for me.
He is decent enough to not rub it in my face when he was right and I was wrong, nor is he smug and self-congratulatory, but his level of correctness has peaked to a point that it fills me with profound resentment. When I express disappointment or frustration with my failed decisions, he says things like “you know I’m always here to talk things through before you make a decision if you want feedback” or “I wish you would have talked to me before you did that and I could have helped you,” and it doesn’t feel like support—it makes me want to scream.
I am starting to feel incompetent and like I can’t make a good decision. I’m a Ph.D. who owns her own home and pays her own bills, so I can’t be all that incompetent. I want to fail without commentary, or just get empathy rather than an offer to save me from myself in the future. Am I totally overreacting to this? Is this gaslighting at an expert level? This is in such stark contrast to every other part of our relationship, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be an issue about my personal baggage and how it feels for me to be wrong. Ironically, this situation I am writing about has compromised my own confidence to decide about this situation.
A: I do think I can answer your question about “gaslighting” fairly straightforwardly. Your boyfriend has given you fairly good advice and seems to have a knack for intuiting other people’s behavior (or relevant experience), and offers to help when you seem frustrated without insisting you let him make your decisions for you. He also takes your advice from time to time and seems pretty open to being guided by others when he’s not sure what to do: He does not appear to be gaslighting you. You feel frustrated, which is perfectly understandable, but I don’t believe he’s actually psychic or that his general good sense is infallible, and it definitely doesn’t seem like he’s orchestrating anything behind the scenes to try to cause you to fail. That doesn’t mean you have to throw up your hands and say, “I guess he’s right about everything, and there’s no value in making my own decisions.” Nor does it mean you have to take his advice, or that you’re not allowed to feel slightly annoyed when his general helpfulness is tinged with a little bit of smugness, even if you think that smugness is kind of well-earned.
I don’t know if this advice has been primarily professional, personal, or what, so I can’t speak more concretely to what “personal baggage” might be at play here. But it does seem clear that, at least for now, you don’t want advice from your boyfriend. That’s fine! Go ahead and tell him that you’re not interested, and that you’d rather just occasionally vent or discuss your plans with him rather than seeking his input. Maybe you’d like to ask for more advice from your friends, a professional mentor, therapist, or a spiritual leader if you happen to be religious; maybe you want to spend more time in reflection and solitude to develop a stronger sense of your own goals and values. Maybe both! But it’s a decision you’re perfectly entitled to make simply because you think your relationship will fare better if you don’t feel resentful towards your boyfriend (I think it probably will too). There can be a great deal of value in learning from your own mistakes, after all.
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Q. Name: My ex and I have a 7-year-old daughter. Our marriage ended over his affair with a family friend, “Val.” We both moved on fairly quickly and are now remarried to other people. We try to be civil, if distant, co-parents. We never discuss anything but our daughter (and I never ask after Val).
I am pregnant but we kept the announcement quiet until last week when we made a social media post where we let my daughter cut a gender reveal cake and reveal her new sister “Sophie.” I didn’t know, until Val’s deranged response, that she had miscarried a girl earlier this year—whom she called Sophia. Val left me a violent voicemail where she accused me of naming my daughter as a form of vengeance, blamed me for her miscarriage, and threatened that if there was any God in heaven, I would lose my pregnancy the same way. Her voice was cold, clear, and controlled. I shared the voicemail with my husband and later our lawyer. He got a restraining order against Val after discovering her making other threats on social media.
Our daughter sees her father at his parents’ now. My ex isn’t happy and has openly accused me of engineering everything. Worse, the sentiment has been repeated by people who I’d always counted on, including my own sister. I “must have known.” She had an affair of her own with her now husband and has an estranged relationship with her stepkids. I don’t know how to respond to this, short of cutting people out of my life. I am under such stress that my doctor is worried. What do I do?
A: “I had no idea, and I’m hurt that you would think I would do something so cruel, deceitful, and petty as deliberately choose my own child’s name to remind someone else of their miscarriage. I’d appreciate an apology.” If an apology is not forthcoming, cut the conversation short and look after yourself.
Q. He left me—so I told his wife: I expect a lot of condemnation for this question, and I accept it for the choices that I made. I was involved with a married guy for a few months. He was very open about his lifestyle, he cheated on his wife every day of their marriage, including their wedding day. She had money and he didn’t, and he has had a very nice life since meeting her, and now has two young sons. He was beyond charming, and I fell very hard.
Well, the obvious happened and after seven months, he moved on. He was extremely open about his life, work, and family, and so it took no time at all to find his wife and send her an email (her work publishes their email addresses online). We engaged in a short conversation where she gave me her personal email and I sent undeniable proof. All of his dating profiles—and there were a lot—have now disappeared, so I presume she confronted him. At first I felt like I was justified. Now, not so much. That’s two children whose home I possibly have broken up. I need perspective on this as it’s occupying my every waking thought.
A: I don’t want to sound brusque, but you really can’t unring this bell. You can, of course, spend every waking moment agonizing over this, but you’ve already told this woman about your relationship with her husband, and whatever she decides to do with this information is up to her. You’ve reached the limit of your ability to do anything when it comes to their marriage, for good or for ill. And whatever condemnation you may feel you deserve, surely this man deserves a little credit for possibly breaking up these children’s home, given his track record both before and after you. The most you can do with your feelings of shame and distress at this point, I think, is to use them as impetus not to get involved with (charming or otherwise) married guys in the future, since it doesn’t sound like on balance it’s been worth losing your peace of mind. The kindest thing you can do for this woman or her children is to leave them alone and wish them the best from a distance.
Q. Leave him home! My sister insists that her boyfriend come with her every time we spend time together. It didn’t start off this way but over time, she gradually started asking if he could come more and more often, to the point where it’s now every single time I see her, I see him too. She often asks me at the very last second as I’m walking out the door to meet her, or she’ll ask me right in front of him so I can’t really say no. Sometimes she doesn’t even ask—I just show up to meet her and he’s there too.
I didn’t get to see her much over the last year due to the pandemic and I really miss her. I like her boyfriend too and don’t mind hanging out with him once in a while, but I’m kind of sick of him crashing every outing. I suspect she wants him there more than he actually wants to be there. I tried gently talking to her about it and asking if we can just go out by ourselves, and she now accuses me of not liking him and often talks about how much I hate him in front of him and other people (I don’t hate him at all). I know I can’t really change her but do you have any advice on what to say as a last resort before I go (very) low-contact with her and stop seeing her for the time being?
A: “Please stop saying that I hate your boyfriend, especially in front of him—that’s such a bizarre and unkind thing to do, and it’s been really surprising. I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I asked if we could spend some time together one-on-one because I miss catching up just the two of us, not because I don’t want to see him. I’m having trouble understanding your reaction. Is there something I’m missing here?”
Q. Is our relationship doomed? Before we got married, my husband (he/him) and I (she/her) were very clear on one thing: No kids. Or so I thought. Now all our friends have started having them and he has told me that he does want a child after all. This has devastated me. This is the one zero-sum game I never thought I would have to play. I am sad for him but also angry, even though I know logically that it’s not his fault and people’s feelings do change over time.
I am really unsure about what I should do next. He seems happy to wait and ‘see if I change my mind,’ which I feel puts a lot of pressure on me. I am in my early 30s, so realistically I have to decide within 3-5 years. We have been married for more than five years and I still love him, but don’t know if it would be fairer to break up with him so that he doesn’t come to resent me. I also feel very lonely in all this. I feel that society’s default position is “you should have a baby, even if you don’t think you want to, but you definitely should!” I don’t have any friends who are child-free by choice and my family is certainly not going to be impartial. This has taken over my thoughts and has caused my anxiety to spike over the last few weeks. I haven’t told my husband and do my crying quietly when I’m alone or after he’s gone to sleep. Do you think it is possible for couples with such a fundamentally different vision of their future life to stay together? Or should I pull the ripcord now, to prevent him more pain in the future?
A: This isn’t just a question of preventing your husband’s pain in the future or sparing his feelings now. You’re the one who’s crying quietly after he’s gone to sleep and feeling completely alone; you’re the one who’s had to deal with an attempt to renegotiate one of the founding principles of your marriage; you’re the one who’s been presented with, “Let’s just start the clock and see if you change your mind in the next few years.” That’s not to say that your husband is a bad person for changing his own mind on the subject of kids. Some people do! But his proposal does indeed put a great deal of pressure on you, and seems thoughtless at best.
I think it is possible for couples with very different attitudes towards kids to stay together, sometimes even happily, but I don’t think such a relationship is possible when one partner feels resentful, stymied, isolated, and unable to say as much out loud, as is the case here. You don’t have to file for divorce tomorrow (and I certainly don’t recommend turning to your family for advice if you believe they’re going to try to pressure you to bend to your husband’s wishes), but you should be honest about your anger and seek out support somewhere, from someone who doesn’t think “babies no matter what” is the best approach.
Q. Coming out in person: I recently came out as trans and started HRT. I came out in person to a lot of people but then did a broader social media post so that my general friend group is also aware. As we are starting to socialize more as people get vaccinated, this means I’m sometimes seeing people who only know I’m trans through Facebook (I don’t pass, and that’s not really a goal of mine). This feels awkward to me? Like there’s this unspoken thing I haven’t said to them personally, but they do know and are probably too polite to bring up? I welcome it as a topic of conversation but I’m really bad at talking about myself and that feels weird to me too!
A: This one is really up to you! If you want to discuss your transition with your friends, you don’t have to broach the subject formally—you can casually mention something related, whether that be a name change, something about HRT if you feel comfortable talking about it with them, making new trans friends, or what have you. You can also say something in lighthearted acknowledgement of what you all already know, like, “I haven’t seen you since before I came out on Facebook! That pandemic sure has made keeping up with friends sort of surreal, hasn’t it?”
Q. My wife and I live apart—and love it! My wife and I are in our mid 50s with two children who are in their early 20s. About 10 years ago, I was offered a wonderful career opportunity in a larger city four hours away from the small town we were living in. Since our children were just about to enter high school, we decided that I would rent an apartment in the city and come home on the weekends, and after they graduated we would figure out where we would live permanently. Ten years later, I am still living in my apartment in the city and my wife is still at our house in the small town. My weekly return visits home are now every three or four weeks, though we text almost daily. I just don’t want to live there any longer, and my wife doesn’t want to move either. But I love my wife and have no desire to end our marriage or even engage in another relationship. And my wife assures me that she feels the same way. When we are together, it’s great! The sex remains good, and we talk and laugh like we always have.
The problem is our children. They think our arrangement is strange and want their parents to be more “normal.” My daughter, who lives in the small town, even drove to visit me unannounced to have an intervention (and, I suspect, to see if there was any evidence I was having an affair). When I told her that our arrangement was working out just fine, and that financially we could more than manage it, she mentioned that this was not how she pictured her children’s relationship with their grandparents. She isn’t even in a relationship, much less close to having children. My son just rolls his eyes and sighs whenever our arrangement ever comes up. How can we impress upon our children that we love each other, but just want to live apart?
A: It’s been a decade, so I think you should scale down your goals from “try to impress upon our children that they should feel as we do” to something a little more manageable like “tell our children we are no longer looking for input, and certainly not looking for interventions, on our marriage.” It’s fine that your relationship doesn’t look exactly how your daughter pictured it, with or without the context of hypothetical grandchildren; she doesn’t have to like it, but you can reasonably tell her that her interference is unwelcome and that you’re not brooking any more conversations about it. Beyond that, congratulations on finding an arrangement that works for you both, and enjoy your next weekend with your wife.
Q. Re: Dating Mr. Almost-Always Right: Saying “I’m looking for empathy, not for you to step in and rescue me” is a perfectly reasonable request people make of friends and family all the time. And he’s not a perfect judge of character since he hasn’t picked up on the fact that his current approach is the wrong one for you!
A: He is definitely not perfect, nor psychic! Whatever combination of skill, luck, and intuition has led him to navigate a few situations successfully is not wholly exclusive to him, and he’s not the only person in the world in possession of those traits. I get why it might feel uncanny at present, but he’s not infallible.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone. See you next week!
From Care and Feeding
I’m a single mom and my daughter is 4. She’s bright, funny, generous, and headstrong. Like most 4-year-olds, she occasionally cops some attitude, like shouting, “Everyone stop talking!” when she wants to say something. Sometimes she melts down into a sobbing mess in response to setbacks or difficulties, but I think this is pretty normal. I don’t love it, but I accept it and we deal with it as best as we can. I’m pretty sure I’m doing this parenting thing all right.
The problem is my mom and sister. They react in pretty negative ways to her behavior. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.
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.