Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Should I let my husband cheat? I discovered my husband is having an affair with a woman at work. I saw them talking one day and got suspicious, so I looked at his texts. Then I angrily confronted her. Surprisingly, she’s really nice. She’s about 15 years older than us. She said they had a mutual attraction and he approached her, but she wasn’t in love with him and didn’t want to break up our marriage and would stop seeing him. He says the same thing—he really loves me, it’s just sex on a lunch break or after work. He enjoyed the excitement.
The thing is, our marriage has been better since it started. He’s much happier and more relaxed and our own sex life has gotten much better. I’m not feeling the jealousy I thought I would and I’m seriously considering letting it continue. What do you think?
A: A few things, in no particular order: You may decide that this arrangement works for you and actually improves your marriage, but that doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to ignore the anger you have experienced or that you have to approve of how your husband went about initiating this affair and keeping it from you. This does not have to be a choice between total approval or total disapproval. If you do decide you’re happy continuing this arrangement, you should still talk to your husband (regularly) about what rules and limits you two can agree upon, and he should still work with you to rebuild trust and try to make amends for his initial deceit. But you don’t have to force yourself to feel jealousy that isn’t currently there, and it’s genuinely wonderful that your own sex life has improved since he started seeing someone else.
You should also talk about the possible complications that might arise from this relationship in particular, since the two of them work together, and how you two will want to handle this new arrangement more globally. How will you navigate a possible breakup, for example, if she decides to end things with him at some point? Do you want to consider the possibility of dating other people yourself? How much time do either of you feel prepared to offer potential other lovers, and how much time do you want to reserve for just the two of you? Perhaps most importantly, how can the two of you find ways to discuss potentially painful information about new attractions/crushes/relationships with each other aside from just trying to hide them as long as possible? Good luck, and congratulations on being happier and having better sex—that’s genuinely thrilling!
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Q. Mom friend: One of my good friends, “Maya,” had a baby about three years ago. Even though I don’t have or want kids, I was thrilled for her. We stayed pretty close and I occasionally babysit her child. I always heard that women who have kids start to gravitate to other women who are mothers because they can’t relate to their single/childless friends anymore. Maya has almost done the opposite. She has a lot of mom friends too, but she still tries to hang out with her old friends, including me. The problem is that she never stops talking about her kid. She is fully immersed in the “mommy” role. And that’s fine! But it’s doesn’t make for scintillating conversation. I also don’t really have any desire to hear the play-by-plays of potty training during happy hour.
I’ve tried asking her about anything else going on in her life, what books/shows/movies/music she’s been enjoying, but she says she only watches PJ Masks and listens to “Baby Shark” these days and diverts the conversation back to her kid. One of our mutual friends once told her she was mommy-jacking the conversation, but it’s like it went right over her head. She never monopolized conversations like this before having kids. I don’t even understand why she wants to spend time with us when none of us can relate to anything she’s going through, and she can’t really relate to anything we’re going through, like dating, career stuff, etc.
I don’t want to end my friendship with Maya but I’m so sick of hearing about her kid! I want her to hang out with her mom friends! We can be polite acquaintances and Facebook friends, but I don’t know how to gently break it to her that the close friendship is over. I feel like I’m just a sounding board for her parenting antics. How do I tell her?
A: If you’ve never directly told Maya how much this frustrates you (and asking about what TV shows she’s watching these days and relying on the fact that a mutual friend once said, “You’re mommy-jacking this conversation” don’t count), then I fear saying “Hey, I don’t want to be friends anymore because you only treat me as a sounding board for your parenting problems” will leave Maya feeling awfully caught off-guard, and I certainly want to discourage you from telling her to “hang out with her mom friends” even if you do decide you don’t want to try to repair this friendship.
“I love you, and I know how much of your time and energy is dedicated to your kid, but almost all of our conversations revolve around parenting these days, and it’s frustrating me, because I want to be able to talk about other things, too. I realize I’ve never said anything to you about this before, so I don’t want to come off too harshly here, but I was worried that being direct would make it seem like I don’t care about you or your kid. That’s not true, obviously, but it’s led me to put off something I wish I’d brought up sooner. Can we talk about that? If it happens again in the future, I’d like to be able to acknowledge it directly and ask to talk about something else—is there a way I can do that that won’t feel abrupt or hurtful?” Try to get a sense for Maya’s willingness to switch topics before deciding you don’t ever want to talk to her outside of Facebook updates again. Even if you do end up deciding to simply spend less time together, I think you’ll feel much better having talked about it openly, rather than waiting for her to catch herself in the middle of a monologue and intuiting that you’re sick of it.
Q. Am I an accessory girlfriend? I am a divorced woman in my late 30s dating a divorced man, “Leon,” in his mid-40s. I have one child, Leon has two. I am amicable with my kid’s father but we are not close; we keep our handoffs pleasant and focus our interactions on the kid. Leon and his ex-wife, “Nina,” are very close—they live down the street from one another, spend most holidays together, and even take vacations together (along with Nina’s new boyfriend).
Leon would like me to join on most of these holidays and trips. He says it’s best “for the kids.” I’m OK with one or two holidays and maybe one trip a year, but I really do not enjoy hanging out with Nina and her boyfriend for many reasons. This is causing friction in my relationship. We have been dating for a year and a half and are starting to talk about moving in together and “blending” our families, but I want him to set some firmer boundaries with Nina first. He says he agrees, but he and Nina are still talking about planning several vacations this summer once everyone is vaccinated. I’ve said they’re free to do so but I’ll do my own thing with my kid. He seems hurt by this. Am I being selfish? I feel like an accessory to a life they’re trying to maintain together.
A: That’s not necessarily a selfish reaction, although it is possible that your different visions for how much time you’ll spend with Nina en famille will ultimately prove incompatible. The good news is that you and Leon are talking this out now before you’ve moved in together; it would be a lot harder to try to find a compromise once your stuff is all moved into the same place.
It’s fine that you don’t like Nina as long as you treat her politely and respect her role as Leon’s co-parent; it’s also fine that Leon feels hurt or disappointed that you two don’t get along, as long as he doesn’t try to pressure you into treating Nina like your new best friend just to make him feel better. Saying, “I can go on one vacation a year with you and your ex, but if you’re going to take multiple vacations this summer, I’ll do something else with my kid” strikes me as a pretty reasonable gesture toward compromise. If Leon can eventually let go of his disappointment that you and Nina aren’t going to become extremely close and work with you on that front, I don’t think you have to worry overmuch about being an “accessory” to his ex. But if he’s absolutely committed to the idea of taking multiple trips together as a blended family every year, and he can’t imagine moving in together unless you share his vision of constant group trips, then you might want to postpone that move-in date for a little further down the road, when the kids are a bit older.
Q. How to socially distance from pod friends: We are “pod partners” with another family, whom we have known and been close with for ages. The parents have been struggling for a while and appear to be headed toward separation, if not divorce. As their main social outlet, we’ve become the main sounding board for their difficulties as well as the “buffer” when we all hang out. I’m tired of this role and want to set boundaries about what and how much is shared, but how do we do this when their outlets for other social contact and relationships are limited by the pandemic? We want to be supportive but also don’t want to be drawn into the middle of their marriage.
A: “I can’t keep having these conversations with you about your marriage. I appreciate that you’re in a difficult position, but you need to find someone else to discuss these problems with, because it’s impossible for me to act as your main social outlet while also trying to balance all these new details about your relationship that you’ve been sharing with me.” If you wait until the pandemic is over, you might be waiting a good long time, plus your own friendship with them will continue to suffer. The two of them will have to solve their own problems when it comes to seeking out additional forms of support—you don’t have to wait until you can find a suitable replacement to resign from the job of unofficial marriage therapist. Just tell them you can’t continue discussing their marital conflicts with them, and let them figure out how to deal with whatever arises next.
Q. My sister stopped talking to me after I put my cat down: My cat “Mittens” suffered two urinary blockages during the great Texas freeze and spent a week in the hospital. The vets said this was one of the more severe cases they had ever seen, and it left Mittens thinner and in a great deal of pain. We had to force-feed him four different medications, including opioids twice a day, give him prescription food he could barely tolerate, and he was peeing (in great pain) all the time and all over the house. My husband and I decided to put him down. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and I am still processing the grief and guilt, while getting ready to welcome a baby.
Here is my issue: My sister and I have had a number of confrontations about her disagreeing with how I have cared for Mittens in the past. She is the identified cat person in the family and has always viewed my care for him as not enough. My sister loved Mittens very much, and while I considered reaching out to her on the night we euthanized him, I felt like it would have been too much for me. She and I have built a very close relationship after years of conflict, and we are back in what feels like old patterns after Mittens’ death. In our first conversation after his death, despite saying she didn’t want to talk about it, she criticized me for how I chose to dispose of his ashes, and then asked for an object of his to practice a grieving ritual. I got extremely angry and sent her a number of very harsh text messages calling her out for asking for my support when she has been unwilling to give it. It has been approximately a month since this all happened, and she still says she needs space to get over the situation with Mittens. She will see me for necessary things and for family gatherings, but the passive aggression is palpable by everyone.
I understand that grieving is different for everyone, and that she may judge and blame me for the very difficult choice I made, but it seems like I am the one who is having to caretake when it was my experience, my cat, and ultimately my loss. Does she have a right to behave this way? Should I give her the space she needs? I’m at a loss on how to mitigate between keeping the relationship we’ve worked so hard to build, and honoring how I really feel and putting up a pretty strong wall. It doesn’t feel like there’s any middle ground, especially when I think about how this kind of relationship may affect my baby daughter in the future.
A: I do think your sister has a right to behave as she sees fit, and a right to tell you when she needs space. For your part, you don’t have to like it, and you’re free to have your own reactions to the space she takes (as well as her reasons for taking it), but you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to force her to resume a closer sort of intimacy when she’s not ready for it. If your options right now are to either grant each other a somewhat-fragile, somewhat-wary distance, or to get drawn back into a harsh fight over text message about which one of you has a right to mourn your cat’s death, or what mutual support between the two of you ought to look like, then I think the distance is the better of the two. That said, you can honor that request without committing yourself to total silence. “I agree that we both need space right now, and I’m sorry I spoke so harshly over text the last time we talked about it. I hope you’ll let me know when you’re ready to talk again, because once we’ve both had a chance to settle down, I want to try to have a conversation about how we can avoid another fight like this in the future.” That kind of response leaves the door open for the possibility of rehashing some of these issues when they’re a little less fresh and you’re both feeling a bit less defensive (although ideally before the baby arrives).
I’m so sorry about your cat, by the way. It sounds like you and your husband did everything you could to take care of Mittens, to minimize his pain and distress, and to give him the best chance for recovery before making the difficult decision to euthanize him. If and when you and your sister are able to talk about this again, I hope you can feel secure on that front.
Q. Ineffective masks: I have a master’s in public health. One of the things that has always bothered me has been how so many people decided to just start making masks to sell. Most masks I see don’t fit material recommendations and many also are not designed well. One of my mother’s colleagues is making these types of masks. They have huge gaps around the nose and the side of the face. I’m not sure of the material, but I’m guessing she’s only using cotton, which is not recommended. Both of these together make for a terrible mask.
She keeps posting these on Facebook to sell. I’m wondering if I should say something to her. I know you tend to have a live-and-let-live attitude for other people’s business, but what these sellers are doing affects me, my community, and can possibly lead to me or my mother getting coronavirus. And frankly, the live-and-let-live attitude is exactly why we didn’t avoid the pandemic in the first place. Is there a nice way to say, “Your masks aren’t effective, you could be making the pandemic worse”?
A: Certainly there is! A “live and let live” approach is often desirable, but it’s not the only desirable approach, and if someone you know (presumably if you’re friends on Facebook you have at least a tenuous connection) is selling masks without realizing what substandard protection they’d offer her wearers, you can absolutely mention your concerns to her without worrying you’re being rude or officious. Be polite and respectful when you speak to her, of course, but by all means mention the shortcomings you’ve noticed and offer to point her in the direction of more useful instructions/resources for making masks in the future. In the meantime, since you say you’re concerned about your mother’s health, make sure you have a similar conversation with her, and encourage her to switch to something more effective.
Q. That wasn’t my childhood: I work for “mean girls” who spend their days trash talking others while the whole office overhears. They often mock me for “growing up poor,” and have made comments to my face like, “Since you didn’t grow up with much money, you may not know about XYZ.” Honestly, I don’t care what people think, but it isn’t true. I grew up solidly middle class in a nice home, plenty of food/toys, and occasional vacations overseas. I’m the only child of a civil engineer and a professor. They know exactly how I grew up, but to them it was “poor.”
I worry that there are people in our office who’ve legitimately struggled financially, facing issues like homelessness and lack of food security, and it feels elitist to call my family “poor” in that context. Due to casual office conversations, most people know a bit about my background, so the claims of poverty is all the more uncomfortable for me. Should I address this? How? With whom?
A: With HR and your supervisor, at least to start, and assuming your immediate supervisor isn’t one of the “mean girls” you work for. I think it’s less important to try to distinguish your childhood from others in the office who potentially have had it much worse than it is to establish that your colleagues/management should not be constantly harassing you (and potentially others) for “growing up poor.” They shouldn’t be doing this to anyone, for any reason, and the actual details of your childhood don’t change that fact at all.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q: Daughter, not wife: My mother has hit a midlife crisis and decided to travel the world while she is still young. I don’t blame her; I wish I had done the same before I got married and had children.
Trouble is, she is still married to my dad who is much older, has many health issues, and doesn’t like to travel. She said she wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t there for him in case he needed me. I live in another town miles away and have small children that make it hard to leave at a moment’s notice.
I don’t know what to do. While I love that my mother is happy and enjoying her life traveling, I am frustrated she has passed on the responsibilities of being a wife to me because I am the daughter. I cook occasionally for him, but moving my dad in with my family is not an option. Health issues aside, my father doesn’t deserve to be alone in his golden years. 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.