Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Abusive dog relationship: I have a close friend who’s more like a sister to me. She is an animal person and works at a veterinary clinic. She and her husband had two dogs, each bringing one into the relationship. In fall of 2019, they fostered a puppy that they ended up keeping. The problem is that this puppy, from the very beginning, has been aggressive toward the other dogs (multiple ER vet trips) and toward my friend, who has gotten severely injured to the point of going to the ER multiple times, usually while trying to intervene in the fight to protect one of the older dogs. They’ve tried medication and behavioral interventions, but if this dog is under any amount of stress, she will lash out at whoever is closest to her. She has not hurt anyone outside of the home thus far that I know of.
This most recent situation happened the day after the death of one of the older dogs, which was unrelated to the attacks, though my friend expressed a lot of guilt for allowing this old dog’s final years to be so stressful. My friend had to go to the ER again and it looks like she’s been beat up. She admitted she can’t keep getting attacked like this, and she and her husband don’t want to lose another dog so soon. But it’s so hard to watch, and I’m genuinely worried my friend or the other dog (who is much smaller) is going to get severely or fatally injured. But they’re back to status quo until this happens again, each time more severe than the next. Is there anything I can do or say here?
A: Have you expressed your concern to your friend directly? That seems like an obvious next move, especially if you’ve previously only confined your concern to generalities or let her take the lead in conversations. Tell her that you’re worried about her safety and that of her other dog, and that you think it’s well past time they moved this dog out of their home. You can offer to help them contact their vet/shelters/anyone who might be sufficiently trained or experienced to foster a dog with a violent history, but it’s definitely time to be clear with her that the status quo can’t continue.
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Q. My roommate wore my underwear: I’m single and live alone. My best friend from college recently got divorced and is in the process of building a house. I told him instead of getting a rental or moving in with his parents, to just stay with me. It’s been great—he takes my dog for daily walks while I recover from a minor foot surgery, he cleans up after himself and even cooks really great meals.
However, one morning when I got up to eat breakfast, he was in the kitchen making coffee and I noticed he was wearing my underwear. I thought we may wear the same brand and style, so I asked if he was wearing my underwear and he said yes, he borrowed mine because he forgot to do laundry. He never gave them back and a few weeks ago, I caught him wearing them again when we were changing in the gym locker room. Is this a violation of bro code? To see someone else wearing my underwear pisses me off.
A: Gosh, it’s been ages since I’ve heard anyone invoke “the bro code.” Unmistakable notes of 2005 predominate! But there’s no need to make this an identity issue; it’s simply rude to borrow anyone’s underwear without asking, and you’re perfectly entitled to tell him to knock it off in no uncertain terms.
Q. Sex-obsessed mother: I love my mother, and we have a fairly good relationship. However, she has always struggled with recognizing and accepting boundaries; this is true for all of her relationships, and she has lost friends and relatives from her life because of this. I have worked with a therapist for a few years who helped me to set reasonable boundaries and to establish some distance. This has worked well for the most part, except for one area in which nothing I seem to do works: sexuality. Every once in a while, my mother will suddenly out of nowhere talk about sex, including her own sex life, and speculate on mine, or explain in detail the mechanics of different sexual positions. She does it in a tone of playful glee, and when I tell her to stop, she will laugh and laugh about how uncomfortable “young people” are with sex. To be clear, I am 26, and my brother (who gets this same treatment) is 29. She also tells me how uptight and “frigid” I am and tells other family members and her friends with that same tone of glee how my brother and I are completely embarrassed by sex. I have no idea about my brother, but I know for myself this is not true. I love having talks with friends and partners about sexuality, consent, and other related topics—when it is appropriate. I just don’t feel comfortable having these talks with my mother. Even if I was comfortable, we don’t share the same views. She is absolutely disgusted by nonmonogamy, BDSM, threesomes, or anything else nontraditional, while I am supportive as long as consent and pleasure are present.
To make matters worse, my mother has learned that I am currently trying for a baby. I now know every position I was possibly conceived in, that apparently she used to “love” sex and have it multiple times a day, and other things I never wanted to know. I have told her to stop, I have hung up the phone, I have told her I will continue to cut contact if she can’t respect my boundaries as her daughter. Nothing works, and she insists it is all a joke, because my uptightness is “hilarious.” She also says some of these talks are necessary because she never had fertility issues and I clearly do, and it is probably related to the fact that I “dislike sex so much”—again, I don’t, and having sex multiple times a day wouldn’t solve the fact that I am not ovulating. She will cool it for a month or two if I lose my temper—something I’d rather not use as a tool regularly especially as I am planning on being a parent—but then the sex talks start again.
I don’t want to cut her out of my life altogether, especially over something that she thinks is a joke, but I don’t know how to make her respect this boundary. What else can I do?
A: I realize you say “nothing works” in the sense that your mother continues in the same exasperating fashion, but I’m sorry to say that this process is working, at least in the way it’s meant to, which is to say it’s enabling you to accurately gauge your mother’s interest in listening to you, respecting your limits, and maintaining a relationship on shared terms. The fact that she’s blown past all your previous limits is an indicator that it is now, in fact, time to deliver on your promise that you’re not going to take her calls anymore. Given her past behavior, I wouldn’t be surprised if she pivoted from cheerful dismissal to absolute shock (“I can’t believe she’s not taking my calls! Where on earth can this be coming from? I had absolutely no warning this bothered her so much…”), which you should not take seriously. You’ve been extremely and consistently clear about this, but I’m afraid I don’t have a backup option when all other attempts to reason with her have failed.
The best I can suggest is letting her know why you won’t be taking her calls before the next provocation, so you won’t have to start the conversation having already lost your temper. If you find it easier to do so in writing, you might decide to email her rather than call, so you don’t have to deal with attempts to derail or dismiss you as you’re trying to speak. You can make it clear that your hope is for the two of you to resume contact in the future, because you love her and you normally enjoy her company, but that you’ve tried everything else, and nothing has worked. “You don’t have to agree with me; you’re free to think I’m uptight because I don’t want to have dishy conversations about sex with my mother, but I do need you to respect my decision instead of constantly overriding it and treating it as a joke.”
Remember that your mother already has an abundance of evidence that you don’t think this is a joke, and she’s made a conscious decision to disregard that evidence. This isn’t a question of having been insufficiently clear. Nor does the fact that she’s treated your limits as a joke mean she’s incapable of understanding that they mean something to you. She chooses to treat your limits as a joke because that provides sufficient cover for her to ignore them. That doesn’t make her a monster, or mean you can’t ever try to reconnect again in the future, but as a general rule, someone who constantly ignores you when you say “I want you to stop” is not someone who’s prepared to offer you a healthy relationship. Whether that person is an acquaintance, a partner, a friend, or a parent, the fundamental principles of respect and reciprocity remain the same.
Q. Kink fatigue: What’s your advice for when you and your partner were heavily involved in kink when you first got together, but one of you has grown away from the interest? My partner is an avid role-player, but I now find acting out his elaborate scenes to be a chore rather than erotic. I feel like I’m letting him down every time I make it clear that kink is something we used to share that I’m no longer interested in. We are polyamorous and we’ve made the agreement clear that he’ll find someone else who’s more interested once more people get vaccinated and he can put himself out there. Should I just grin and bear it in the meantime?
A: I don’t think so, no! It’s one thing to occasionally join a partner whose kink you’re not particularly into, but if it only feels like a chore and the most you can muster is the possibility of “grinning and bearing” an elaborate scene, I think that’s an indicator to put things on hold. Your partner may very well be disappointed that you no longer share this kink, which would be perfectly understandable, but people (and their interests) often change over time, and going through the motions when you’re totally disinterested/turned off wouldn’t really give either of you what you want. Take a break (an indefinite or permanent one) from this particular kink if you need it, give your partner the opportunity to talk about his own response from time to time, and then let him figure out how/when/where to look for other partners when the opportunity arises.
Q. That is my name, but …: A few months ago, I started a new job. I noticed that one of my new colleagues, “Ann,” has an odd way of speaking, and specifically, she pronounced my name by overenunciating every consonant. It’s not an incorrect pronunciation, per se, but it’s off-putting. I let it go, figuring it’s something she can’t help. Then, last week, Ann led an informal training session (these happen about 2-3 times a month, where someone picks a topic like “how to stay organized,” and gives some pointers). Ann’s position in the company involves sales, so she speaks with clients regularly. During her session, she spoke about how she was very involved in the theater in school, still occasionally takes drama classes, and how these have helped her communicate better with clients. Through what she was saying, I came to realize that the way she speaks is actually intentional—she enunciates as if she’s on stage giving a performance. Now, I can’t stop being annoyed at how she pronounces my name. I know this sounds really silly, but I just cringe every time I hear her say it.
Would I be out of line if I ask her to change how she says my name? And if not, how do I even approach this? We are in different departments, so we don’t directly work with each other, but it is a small company, so I see her fairly often. We get along fine. I don’t want to seem like a ridiculous person, though. Any tips?
A: This is a little tricky, since you now know that her idiosyncratic emphasis is part of her overall communication “strategy,” rather than unique to you, and you probably won’t have much success in trying to get her to overhaul her entire theatrical approach to speech. But I think you do have grounds to offer a correction the next time you speak—”It’s pronounced [your name pronounced correctly], actually”—without bringing up that strategy at all. If you normally get along well, and your correction is short and to-the-point, I think you have reason to believe she’ll be able to make the switch. She might continue to (correctly) say your name with a theatrical and over-the-top tone that you still find off-putting, at which point you’ll probably need to let it go, but by all means, say something now.
Q. Friend’s dad: I often have to travel for work to a certain city on the other side of the country. The airline I fly often has cancellations and we get stuck trying to find hotel rooms until we can get rebooked on another flight. A few months ago, I had been texting my friend “Emma” while I was stranded and trying to find a hotel. She replied that her dad lives in that city with his wife and sons and I should just go stay with him; he wouldn’t mind because he loves me and it’s no big deal.
I’ve known Emma since kindergarten. When she was 11, her dad left her and her mom and moved across the country to start a new family. It was very tough on them, both emotionally and financially. He refused to pay any child support so they were close to homelessness a few times. They even stayed with my family for a few weeks. It was terrible. Emma has since forgiven her dad and they have a decent relationship. I think she talks to him a few times a month.
I don’t think she should have a relationship with him at all. This sounds stupid, but even though Emma may have forgiven her dad, I haven’t. I practically lived at her house in elementary school and got to know her family really, really well. Her mom considers me a second daughter and I loved her dad when we were kids. But I saw how horrible it was for them after he left, and how many poor decisions Emma made because she grew up without a father. I was able to get out of it last time by mentioning COVID concerns but I’m not sure what to do next time. She gets very defensive of him. How do I tell her I don’t want to see her dad?
A: “That’s a very kind offer, but I’m all set, thanks,” followed by not texting Emma in the future when you’re looking for a hotel room in that city.
Q. Give back or not: What is the protocol for giving (well, mailing) back gifts given to you by an affair partner? We’ve had an on-again, off-again affair for about two years that is now definitely off. I am trying very hard to keep it this way permanently. I deleted photos, messages, call logs, and even donated the money he gave me to an association for a condition his mother is suffering from. But I still have the costume jewelry, intimate clothing, and sex toys he liked me to wear when we were together. A part of me wants to send it back, but obviously not to his marital home or the apartment he rents to tenants. I could send it to his company headquarters, though I’d have no way of knowing he’d received them as he works mostly off-site for his job. (I should add he has used this address to send me money orders in the past when we weren’t together, believing I could use “help,” since I wasn’t working.) What should I do? A part of me feels vengeful for doing so after he acknowledged he was just using me when we rekindled this affair. It would feel good to get even.
A: It makes sense that you feel angry, but your desire to “get even” is very much at odds with your other desire to make sure things stay “off-again” for good. There’s no reason to give back costume jewelry or worn clothing to an ex—he’s certainly not looking for keepsakes, and he’s unlikely to use them again—so you should feel free to simply get rid of them, especially since there’s not much of a secondhand market for used sex toys or lingerie. Mailing them to his office might feel briefly satisfying, but I think it’s just as likely that it would lead to renewed (and angry) contact, which you want to avoid. Your resentment over being told “I was just using you” upon your breakup is perfectly understandable; you don’t have to forgive this guy or feel warmly about the two years you spent together. You’re free to think badly of him for the rest of your life. But it will only make your own life more complicated to mail things to his office that he can’t possibly use, and has expressed no interest in having back.
Q. Re: Sex-obsessed mother: Re: “She also says some of these talks are necessary because she never had fertility issues and I clearly do, and it is probably related to the fact that I ‘dislike sex so much’—again, I don’t, and having sex multiple times a day wouldn’t solve the fact that I am not ovulating.” This goes way beyond your mother enjoying shocking you—she’s blaming you for fertility struggles and looking to make herself look better. Until she can treat you with respect—especially over something that is causing pain—you might want to take a break. She’s overtly hitting you where it hurts; that’s not something a kind person, let alone your mother, should do.
A: That’s a really useful distinction, thank you for pointing that out. The “it’s just a joke” dodge is bad enough, but when she tries to elaborate it into “I’m just joking, but it’s also for your own good, and the fact that you don’t enjoy having these conversations with your mother is probably why you’re not ovulating” is truly awful. This one has multiple roots and is not just a straightforward case of “my mom thinks we’re both having a good time.”
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you next week for our last-ever live chat together.
From Care and Feeding
I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son. We recently enrolled my daughter in weekly ballet lessons. We love everything about it … except an issue with a sibling of one of her classmates. The dance studio has a large room with several couches, tables, and chairs where the parents and siblings hang out during class. One of my daughter’s classmates has a brother (approximately 6 years old), and I suspect he is neuroatypical. The problem is that he is obsessed with babies. 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.
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