Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Russian girlfriend: I met my girlfriend on Reddit last year at the start of the pandemic. We quickly started texting every day, which then proceeded to voice and video chats, and after a few months we decided to start a relationship with each other.
The problem is that she lives in St. Petersburg and I live in Texas. She also happens to be very attractive, and when I first told my friends about her, they immediately went in on “Russian mail-order bride” jokes. This was tolerable at first, but it seems like my friends are becoming concerned that I’m being scammed by this woman. They’re worried that she’s going to try to take my money or try to use me for a green card, despite never once asking for any money from me and never expressing interest in becoming an American citizen.
Now that vaccines are becoming more available, we’ve started talking about her taking a trip to come and see me. I offered to pay for her plane tickets and let her take care of her own food, a hotel room, etc. This seems fair to me, as I’ve been fortunate enough to continue working from home through most of the pandemic. My friends are really getting worried and are wondering if I’ve gone a little crazy or if I’m being manipulated. Am I right to be annoyed with them? How can I get them to understand that this is hurtful and I need them to respect my relationship?
A: I’d like to extend to not just you, but everyone reading today, my blanket permission to be annoyed with your friends from time to time! You are always allowed to be annoyed with your friends if you find their behavior annoying, and are thereafter free to say so, as long as you don’t go overboard and say something really over-the-top or hurtful.
You don’t say anything about your previous dating history or whether you’ve fallen for scams in the past, so I won’t try to make up for my ignorance with guesswork and will do my best to confine myself to the issue at hand. It may be asking slightly too much to ask your friends to “respect [your] relationship,” especially since they haven’t yet met your girlfriend. Crucially, neither have you! That doesn’t mean she can’t be your girlfriend, nor does it mean that your relationship is unimportant, but it does mean that there are still a number of unknown variables that you’ll only be able to assess once you’ve finally met in person.
But you can reasonably ask them to respect your right to make your own decisions, and even to make your own mistakes: “You’ve made your concerns really clear, and I promise I’m not going to forget about them anytime soon. I also do not want to be scammed or manipulated by someone who doesn’t really care about me, so we’re on the same page there. I’m comfortable with the way we’re splitting expenses for her trip to come see me, and I know my own budget and limits better than you do, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped bringing this up. I’m not telling you you’re not allowed to have concerns; I just want to acknowledge that you’ve expressed the same concerns over and over again, and at this point you don’t have anything to say on the subject that I don’t already know.”
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Q. Schrödinger’s friend: My friend Amy lives 10 blocks away from me. I haven’t seen her in more than a year, though. At the beginning of the pandemic, our city (understandably) completely shut down. Once restaurants were allowed to start outdoor dining, I asked her if she wanted to meet up. She said she wasn’t comfortable with that, which was totally fine, so occasionally I’d propose going for a masked walk or meeting up in one of the tons of parks in the city, where we can stay masked and socially distanced. She’d always give a vague answer like “I’ll let you know,” then never follow up. I chalked it up to her still not being comfortable with that either, and figured I’d give it time and let her reach out when she feels safer going out.
However, in the past 1.5 months, I know she’s been going outside for walks because she posts pics on social media, and also sends me texts about stuff she sees. I responded to one of the texts she sent about one of the local parks, saying “Let’s meet up there soon!” and received no response. Plus, we’re both now fully vaccinated. If she feels comfortable enough to go for walks outside, to areas where there’s definitely going to be people out and about, why doesn’t she want to see me? It can’t be a matter of she just isn’t interested in being friends anymore, because we text constantly—it’s not uncommon to have a full conversation throughout the day over text. And she’ll occasionally propose having “happy hour” over Zoom. But honestly, I’m starting to become not interested in this friendship anymore. I don’t want to have lengthy text conversations. I don’t want to sit in my apartment and talk over Zoom or even on the phone when she obviously now feels OK going outside, and we live so close. As far as I’m aware, she doesn’t have any medical conditions that make her more susceptible to complications from COVID (we’ve been good friends for over 15 years, and she’s never been super private or anything, so I can’t imagine she wouldn’t tell me if there was an issue). I understand that prior to COVID, we’d always struggle to find time to hang out because we both have demanding work struggles, but we still made it happen. So I’m really at a loss as to what the deal is. Am I being unreasonable by not wanting to keep up the effort this way? If not, how do I approach this with her?
A: Not unreasonable at all! Tell her what you told me: “I miss you, and I’m a little worried that I’ve done something to upset you because whenever I’ve suggested meeting up outdoors now that we’re both vaccinated, you’ve declined or ignored my response, so I just wanted to ask if there’s something going on that I’m missing.” It may be that something has been bothering her, and asking about it will create an opportunity for you two to work through it. But it’s not unreasonable to acknowledge a new reluctance in her to meet in person and ask for clarification! Maybe it’s just that she’s slammed with requests for meetups in the park from all of her friends and doesn’t know how to say so; maybe she’s having a hard time adjusting to life post-vaccination and is feeling overwhelmed. While I take your point about this friendship being a frank and long-standing one, people don’t always know exactly what their issues are in the moment; sometimes it takes a prompt from a friend to start thinking carefully about a pattern one hasn’t yet realized in one’s own life.
Whatever the case, you’ll have a better opportunity to find a meaningful compromise once you know what’s going on with her. And of course you can tell her that you’re feeling real Zoom- and text-fatigued on your own behalf, and ask if she’s willing to take that into consideration before you two get together again. But don’t just leave that last abandoned conversation to rot on the vine. Tell her that you’re a little worried you’re missing something and that you’re longing for a chance to get together without the mediation of a screen between you. Good luck!
Q. Gifts for Mom: My mom asks for elaborate gifts for each birthday and holiday. Money is tight for me now, and was tight for us all growing up, but she’s extremely well-off now after remarrying someone very wealthy. I feel obligated to get her these gifts because she has helped me financially in many ways in the past. The problem is she usually either never uses the gifts because she ends up not liking them (despite directly asking for that specific thing) or returns it for something else, sometimes a less pricey item. It’s extremely aggravating to see my money being wasted like this. I’ve suggested gift cards to places she likes, but she says that’s impersonal. Do you have any suggestions of how to give her gifts that don’t break the bank or leave me feeling hung out to dry?
A: Get her something thoughtful and personal that you can afford! If she tells you she wants a specific item but that’s much too expensive, tell her that’s out of your price range but that you’ll keep it in mind as an example. You’re unlikely to be able to repay her for whatever financial assistance she gave you through annual installments of expensive birthday presents, so try to keep that in mind whenever you feel a surge of obligation to get her exactly what she asks for. Keep your purchase affordable, write a thoughtful note about how much you appreciate all she’s done for you, and include a gift receipt.
Q. I don’t want my in-laws’ dog near our baby: My husband and I are expecting our first baby this month, and this will be the first grandchild on his side of the family. Our families are incredibly excited, especially his parents. They have already purchased baby toys and items such as a crib and a play yard so that we can comfortably visit, and have been making many preparations for baby’s arrival.
There is one problem: They have a dog. I do not like dogs, have never liked dogs, and was admittedly quite disappointed last year when they chose to get a dog for the first time. I really enjoy spending time with my in-laws, and I now have to wait outside the house for at least 10 minutes whenever we arrive to allow the dog to calm down by the time I enter. The dog is extremely rambunctious and has jumped on me more than once during my pregnancy, which I have been explicit about not being OK with. I am scared of dogs with good reason: When my sister was 7, I saw her viciously attacked by a friend’s dog that we had known for years and had no history of hurting people or children. I am also a physician, and I have seen many dog accidents involving children, and just feel that in general animals are unpredictable.
All of this is to say: I do not want a poorly trained, hyper dog anywhere near our infant. My husband is very much in agreement with me and intends to tell his parents our rule: If we are in the house, the dog must be held separately in the basement, no exceptions. The problem is I know my in-laws will be devastated. They love this dog, and, as much as I do not share the same sentiments, I see that she brings them great joy. At the same time, I do not feel that having this dog around is a fair trade for our soon-to-be-here child’s safety. I already feel that the onus has been unfairly placed on me to adjust to this dog’s presence, when it was not my decision for this dog to become a part of my life. Is it fair to set this boundary with my in-laws?
A: I think it’s fairly reasonable for your husband to tell his parents that you two don’t want them to include their dog during visits to your newborn! They can arrange for a dog walker to come by or start training her now so she can comfortably spend two or three hours in her own company without getting agitated (a useful skill that will go a long way toward making her life better in general, not just to make visits more convenient for you), see if there are any doggie day care centers nearby, or try to arrange for a “play date” with another dog. You’re not asking them to get rid of her, just that they don’t put her in the same room as your new baby, and that’s a perfectly reasonable request. I’m glad your husband is offering to broker this conversation on your behalf with his parents, and he can stress how much better this will be for everyone. It can be anxiety-inducing for a normally rambunctious dog to suddenly have to guess why everyone’s all tense and upset when she does something she normally does with no problems.
You’re far from the only person who doesn’t like it when even a friendly dog jumps all over them, for whatever it’s worth, and I hope your husband can impress upon his parents the importance of training their dog to stop it. It’s a very common problem, but dogs usually respond pretty well to being positively trained out of that habit. I don’t suggest that option to get you to relax your position about the new baby, but because it will make visits for everyone easier and more fun. You and your husband might want to discuss under what circumstances you’d be willing for your baby to meet the dog under controlled conditions (at what age, if the dog’s on a leash, if the meeting is outdoors and supervised, etc.) just so she can get to know the dog and doesn’t think of it as a completely alien creature that dwells constantly in the basement. But in the meantime, it’s perfectly fine not to want to have to deal with an easily excited dog and a newborn at the same time.
Q. Conflict confusion: I have been married to my husband for almost seven years. We have one child together, and generally we get along. However, we have a long-running inability to overcome conflict and I’m at the end of my rope. It’s getting worse, not better, and I’m starting to wonder if we’ve slowly transitioned into patterns of emotional and verbal abuse. My husband will regularly say things like “Oh, you’re just always the victim, aren’t you? Everything just happens TO you” and “If things are so terrible, then just leave!” These could be in response to a substantial complaint about our relationship or a mention of a slight annoyance. The response is generally angry, insulting, belittling, and I’m told “It’s always all about your feelings. I guess nobody else matters.” I do love my husband, but I am starting to really dislike the person he is during times of disagreement. I’ve suggested therapy, but he told me, “Be careful what you wish for. Any therapist would tell me to leave you.” My question: Is this just a high-conflict time, or something more serious?
A: I’m struggling to come up with a more thoughtful answer than “It kind of sounds like your husband wants you to leave him.” For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that regularly saying “Oh, you’re always the victim, why don’t you just leave me” falls under the umbrella of a “high-conflict time” in an otherwise solid relationship—that strikes me as falling well outside of the norm, even taking into account that “the norm” can include some pretty blistering fights.
I think this is pretty serious. Have you told anyone else about this dynamic? Do you have any friends or relatives who know about what you’re struggling with, whom you can turn to for advice and support when your partner says “Might as well divorce me, then” when you disagree about something as mundane as the grocery list, who can help you establish a sense of scale and figure out what you need to do next? If it’s a long-standing pattern that’s recently gotten worse and your husband is dismissive (at best) of therapy, I think now’s the time to start being honest with some people you trust about just how much you’re struggling. You are quite right to call your husband’s responses insulting and belittling! It’s such an unnecessarily combative and paranoid response to disagreement, and I don’t wonder that you feel at a loss. It’s perfectly possible to disagree about even important things while still speaking to your partner with love and respect, and your husband’s tactics are designed to forestall even the mildest and most low-grade acknowledgment of difference between the two of you. It’s not good—not even close to good.
If you say something to your husband like “I love you, and I don’t want to leave you. It’s frustrating and painful when you respond to almost every disagreement, whether big or small, by telling me I might as well just go. What’s especially painful is that after hearing this response again and again, I’m starting to feel like that’s what you really want. I don’t want to end our marriage over this. I want to be able to talk through disagreements, even complicated ones, without fear of abandonment or trying to push each other away. But this needs to change. I need to know that you’re not going to keep telling me to leave whenever I try to talk to you about something important,” and he’s receptive, even if only briefly, that might be a sign that couples counseling can prove helpful. But if you lay it out as honestly and as sincerely as that, and he says, “There you go, playing the victim again,” it might just be time to take his advice and consider leaving.
Q. Can’t talk about my kink: I am a 36-year-old woman married to a wonderful guy for 10 years. I have, however, kept a weird kink I would love to experience from him, a kink I’ve known about for years. I also know for a fact he would not enjoy it, not be open to it, and would maybe even judge me for it. Our sex life is ordinary at best. Lately, since I’ve been thinking and fantasizing about it a lot (even playing these scenarios in my head when we’re having sex, which is a huge turn-on for me). I am not sure what to do—pay someone to play this fantasy with me or keep it under wraps and carry on with life?
A: I’d like to vote for “talking to your partner about it,” even if only in a nonspecific or theoretical sense until you can suss out the likelihood of a dismissive or judgmental response, as an alternative to “paying someone to play this fantasy with me.” Not because I think hiring a professional is a bad way to handle a unique kink, but since you’re already too embarrassed to discuss the kink itself with your husband, I’m guessing you don’t plan on telling him you’ve hired a sex worker to enact this fantasy with you, and I think you’d feel even more distant from your husband if this secret developed a companion you also plan to “keep under wraps.”
You can, of course, simply enjoy having a private kink that makes sex hotter and more fun for you. Fantasizing during sex is a lovely thing! You have my robust permission to fantasize as often as you like and about whatever you like when you have sex with your husband—that’s part of the pleasure of autonomy and interiority and not something you’re under any obligation to disclose. But I wonder if you can see any possible value in talking (cautiously) to your husband about this kink even if you don’t expect he’ll help you play it out. If you can’t, and you’d like to keep things to yourself, that’s just fine; if you can imagine some relief from talking about it with him in only the most general of terms (“I have a kink I feel pretty certain you don’t share and wouldn’t enjoy. Would you be open to my occasionally exploring this outside of our relationship?”), then that might be worth considering, too.
Q. Am I naïve for thinking I should be happy at work? I work in a hospital and I love the work I do. I don’t so much love my co-workers. I don’t mind the hospital as a whole—I think their policies and mission are good—but the people tasked with carrying out the day-to-day stuff are pretty miserable. My co-workers are whiny and negative and often act entitled. Everyone seems to talk about everyone else and I feel like no one can really be trusted. They will be nice to your face and then they talk shit about you as soon as you leave the room. I’ve always had the philosophy that one should love the job they have because they spend so much of their lives there. I have taken lower-paying positions to avoid working somewhere I do not like. This has become even more important to me now that I have a child; if I am going to spend so many hours away from him, I want it to be doing something I enjoy. I am looking for a new job that will most likely force me to move out of state because the current hospital that I work at is the only one in my area that I would be proud of working at (the others are really horrible with archaic ways of treating patients, and overall satisfaction there is way down).
When I talk about this with family or friends, they think I am being naïve and searching for something that doesn’t exist. They say that I need to accept that almost no one likes their job and to just suck it up and go to work. I know that finding a place I like is not impossible—I worked at a hospital I loved, with lovely co-workers, five years ago, but moved to my current city to help out my family when my dad got into a horrible accident that left him with a long and intense recovery. I honestly don’t mind moving if it means I will find a place that I love working, but maybe my last workplace was just a fluke? I have a list of specific things I want out of an employer, ranging from the patient population to official policies and procedures. I really don’t want to settle, but enough people have tried to dissuade me and “make me see reason” that I am starting to doubt myself. Am I naïve for being choosy about where I work? Should I lower my expectations?
A: I’m curious what sort of “reason” these people are hoping you’ll see! I might quibble with your philosophy about “loving” one’s job simply because one has to be there—I could get on board with a philosophy about trying to make the best of it and looking to get along with one’s co-workers as much as possible—but you don’t seem to be describing anything wildly unrealistic to me. You’ve had colleagues in the past who were generally pleasant to work with, and you’ve given five years to this place out of necessity, and now that (presumably) your father doesn’t need quite so much daily care, you want to look for a new employer. That seems reasonable to me! Having a list of specific goals is even better, as long as you’re able to develop a distinction between “settling” and “two out of three ain’t bad.” I wouldn’t encourage you to lower your expectations preemptively simply because some of your friends think you’re unlikely to find pleasant colleagues anywhere else. If you find that it’s harder than you’d hoped to find a hospital that checks all of your boxes, it might be worth doing some back-of-the-envelope recalculations to figure out what you absolutely can’t do without and what you might be willing to negotiate (as you have in the past when you’ve taken lower-paying jobs, for example). But I can’t think of a good reason to do so ahead of time, before you’ve even started interviewing anywhere. Good luck!
Q. Re: Schrödinger’s friend: Is it possible that Amy does have a medical issue she is choosing not to share? Perhaps she is pregnant and showing, for example, but not at a point where she’s ready to announce, so she’s using COVID and Zoom as a way to buy herself more time? Or any other visible medical issue she can hide on a Zoom call that she can’t hide in person.
A: I don’t know if that’s the case, but I agree that the letter writer should approach this conversation by leaving room for the possibility that there’s something else going on that only Amy knows about. If she starts with a curious, caring perspective, there’s an excellent chance that Amy will feel comfortable speaking to her about it. “You can always get angry later” is excellent and timeless advice.
Q. Re: Schrödinger’s friend: The friend could be me. I didn’t see friends during the pandemic, even socially distanced, out of plain old fear and anxiety. Now that I’m vaccinated, I’m starting to emerge but I’m still not ready to see friends even for something seemingly as innocuous as a walk. I’ve been on walks alone to work up to it. The difference for me is that I’ve been upfront with friends, not vague. I hope the letter writer can show some additional grace to a friend who might be struggling as they come back to the world.
A: There’s an excellent chance that this is at least part of what’s going on—some people emerge from quarantine eager and excited to see old friends, while some people might find that (despite wanting to see old friends) they’re newly overwhelmed and anxious and maybe even feel a little embarrassed about struggling with something that used to come easily. Plenty of possible factors here; as long as the letter writer can make it clear to Amy that they don’t want to pressure her and just want to find a way to make an in-person reunion feel as safe and low-key as possible, I think there’s reason to be hopeful.
Q. Re: Gifts for Mom: Don’t get your mom things that money can buy. Give things like photos of past occasions, homemade foodstuffs, etc.
A: That’s a lovely suggestion! I know there are definitely families where it’s customary to simply declare a few weeks in advance of a birthday or other gift-giving holiday, “I want X from Page 99 of SkyMall; make it so,” so I don’t want to rule against such a custom in all circumstances, but I do think that even among the “cheerful gift announcing” types, it is still polite and permissible to decline to follow instructions, if such a gift is outside of one’s budget.
Q. Thanks for being Prudie! I don’t have a question, just wanted to say thanks for being Prudie! I’m a big fan of your writing and I’ve loved seeing your perspective. I’m going to miss you as Prudie, but am really excited for whatever comes next for you.
A: That’s terribly kind, thank you so much. I can’t begin to explain what a surreal gift getting to “be” Prudence for the last few years has been, and I’m very grateful to all the regular live chatters who offered their own expertise, shared experiences, questions, and reminders to go back and reread the question when I rushed an answer (“I think you mixed up the letter writer and her sister again…”). I’m going to miss it too, although I’m excited to become a faithful reader of the column once again now that I’m no longer the one tasked with writing it.
Q. Danny M. Lavery, I will miss you so much! You did a bang-up job when you took the helm. I wanted to say that I always listened carefully to trans-related questions and trans guests. I mean, I would listen to you reading the lunch menu at Pizza Hut, but I did actually think “I really should learn more about the trans community that I ‘think’ I know; it will be helpful.” About a month ago, my husband came out as a trans woman :) Just wanted to say that I’m even more glad I paid attention as I am 100 percent supportive of my wife and wish to be her rock during this time. Many thanks for you and your wise perspective on so many things.
A: This has pushed me to the verge of tears and also made me want Pizza Hut for lunch, which is an unexpected but delightful condition for a weekday afternoon. I won’t be gone completely from these hills: I’ll keep recording a podcast with Slate, although we’re tweaking the name to Big Mood, Little Mood, with Danny M. Lavery, and it will offer a more balanced combination of question-answering and guest interview, so you’ll still hear me around from time to time.
Transitioning while working such a public-facing job was a very daunting proposition, and I’m very grateful for the support of everyone at Slate, including the readers of this column, for making it so much easier than I feared it would be. Thanks again, most sincerely, for the opportunity to spend five years at the most interesting and exciting job imaginable.
From Pay Dirt, Slate’s new money advice column
My grandmother has been harassing me nonstop about having children for years, and now that I have a steady boyfriend, she’s been ramping up the comments, begging, crying, and even talking to my boyfriend, saying, “I need to carry on the family line.” I’m 36 and have known for many years I don’t want children, and this has been exacerbated by the fact that we have extensive medical problems on both sides that I don’t wish to pass on. She’s now threatening to pull financial help that she very occasionally provides if I don’t have a child ASAP. I’m now at the point where I’m considering forging a doctor’s letter saying I’m barren to get her off my case, even if it means losing the small amount of help I get from her. Is it ethically wrong?
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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