Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Friend in the middle: One of my closest, and strongest, friends has held herself and parts of her family together for years and even more so through the pandemic. We live in different cities and although we keep in touch regularly, I didn’t realize how much she had taken on until she and her husband visited me a few months ago. During the visit, it was clear her husband was struggling a lot (depression/anxiety/general pandemic stress) and she was trying her best to be supportive, but a bit at a loss of what to do. She was also dealing with her own pandemic stress, getting anxiety attacks for the first time.
A few weeks ago, all three of us attended a mutual friend’s wedding. At one point in the weekend, I ended up running an errand with her husband, and he made several comments about how he was unhappy that my friend seemed to prioritize work over their relationship and that he had issued her an ultimatum about needing to focus on their relationship rather than work. Surprised, I tried to steer him toward talking with his wife and suggested couples counseling if he was really upset, rather than issuing ultimatums. Later that weekend, when my friend and I were one-on-one, she expressed that she and her husband were in a rough patch, but that things would be fine. I did not disclose what her husband told me (it felt like meddling for me to expose something he told me as a friend), but expressed to her that everyone was struggling in the pandemic and that it was OK to get help/counseling to get through the rough patch with less pain.
Fast forward a few weeks, and my friend’s husband texted me to say that they had a conversation about couples counseling and my friend was highly resistant and scared of it. I have become friends with her husband over the years, but he only recently started communicating with me one-on-one rather than in a friend group chat. I counseled him to give her time and space (couples counseling is new ground for both of them), but am very uncomfortable with this knowledge since my friend hasn’t talked to me about this at all. I reached out to her to catch up, but she’s been uncharacteristically quiet.
I truly think my friend and her husband are the real deal and can get through the rough patch and I want to support them, but I absolutely do not want to be in the middle of their conflict and am already uncomfortable with hearing “both sides” when the two need to talk to each other. How do I be supportive while not getting overly involved, or extricate myself from being in the middle?
A: This is awkward. You haven’t done anything wrong, but I think you should reset your boundaries as soon as possible, and as clearly as possible. And you should do it in writing just in case things somehow get messy down the line. Send a text to him saying something like:
“Hi [Husband]. I’ve been giving this some thought and I don’t think it’s the best idea for us to talk about your relationship with [Wife] anymore. I’m in an awkward position because I care about both of you and about your marriage. But because she and I have been friends for longer and have a closer bond, it seems best for me to give my input only to her so I don’t feel stuck in the middle. I especially don’t want to feel like I’m ever talking behind her back, even if it’s just about something like suggesting counseling, like I did at the wedding. I think you’re a great couple and I believe you will get through this. I hope you understand!”
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Q. What to do: I am 45, male, and a social progressive. My dad, 78, is a conservative, and becomes more and more conservative as he ages, going further down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and white nationalism pushed on right-wing websites and cable “news” networks. My dad is a good man (really) and I dearly love him. However, as he gets closer to dying (which I hope is a loooong way off), he seems increasingly determined to “convert” me over to his way of thinking and looking at the world, maybe as a way to ensure his legacy(?) lives on after he’s gone.
I’ve never unloaded on my dad over his quite frankly racist attitudes. But the other day I did. I just snapped. I’m mad, his feelings are hurt, we’re not speaking, and so forth. I’m not going to change, nor is my dad, and that’s OK. But this is not how I want to exist with my dad in the final years of his life.
A: I’m sure he wants you in his life too. A lot of people choose to maintain relationships with their families by not talking about “politics” (a category of topics that for some reason has been expanded to include any and all bigotry). You can let him know that this is the requirement for spending time with you, and that you will cut him off again if you hear another racist word out of his mouth. There are a LOT of other things to talk about. If he’s indeed a “good man” (your term for a racist, not mine) who loves you, this shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Q. Do I stay? My fiancé and I have been together for eight years. He’s charming, hilarious, and my rock. We have great conversations and many happy memories. But he has hurt me deeply. He constantly rejects me sexually, wreaking havoc on my self-esteem, and my needs are not considered when we have sex. He has cheated on me, through text, and they discussed my sexual performance in their conversation. Our house has been in shambles during home improvements. He assured me it would take six months. It has been four years. I never smoked weed before I met him, but joined him soon after as a way to connect. Recently I’ve stopped because it’s masking our problems, and I’ve asked him to stop or slow down too. He has not. I’ve wanted counseling for years. I finally confessed I had cheated on him about six months ago, which I know was totally wrong of me. We’ve talked extensively about our problems but there is a lot of lip service but no actual growth. He believes he will change, but it doesn’t happen.
He IS a good man and provider who does love me. But I know that just because there is love in a relationship does not mean it is workable. When do I know the bad is outweighing the good and we’ve reached the end? Every long-term relationship goes through difficult times. I’ve been physically sick over this for months. When I think about our cuddly and cute times, I am devastated to lose them. Please help.
A: “The good outweighs the bad” is a description that should be used to describe situations like these:
“Even though I like cats and we can’t have one because he’s allergic, I’m really happy.” “I love my marriage even though my stepkids can be extremely annoying.” “My husband is bad with money but he’s working on it and we’re in therapy, and we’re a great team.”
It doesn’t apply to a relationship that includes sexual rejection, a house in shambles, using weed not for fun but to cope, cheating (while talking about you with his cheating partner!), and refusal to grow. Sure, every relationship has difficult times. But not this difficult. If you don’t mind, I’ll quote my own response to a previous question:
The way you know you’re meant to be with someone is that they treat you well and make you happy and everything falls into place. I think “relationships are work” is one of the most damaging messages out there, because it can be misinterpreted to cover a lot of stuff that nobody should put up with. The “work” is supposed to involve being considerate, figuring out how to operate as a team, and occasionally compromising, not chasing down a person who has made it clear that they’re OK with never talking to you again.
Q. Big day blues: I have dueling weddings on the same date this fall and am feeling overwhelmed. I have a friend from college (“Cam”) who was set to get married in 2020 (but then … you know) whose wedding was rescheduled to this fall. So, I have technically been saving the date for over a year! Then, this summer, another friend (“Gray”) got engaged. Last month Gray set their wedding date for—the same one as Cam. Oof.
After coming to terms with the fact that, no matter what, I’ll be missing the big day for someone I care about, my husband and I discussed it and decided that we’d go to Cam’s wedding. We’d already RSVP’d—twice—and knew that we would not be hurting Gray’s feelings, as they were aware of our scheduling conflict before they set their date. I’m slightly closer with Gray, so this was a hard choice, but it feels like it’s the right thing to do.
Now, though, I’m worried about the fallout and second-guessing our choice. The groups of friends for these events do not overlap except for one other person (“Blair”) with whom I’m very close, who is also invited to both weddings. I know I shouldn’t worry about what other people are doing, but I am a little nervous that Blair is going to attend Gray’s wedding, and I’ll look like a jerk for not similarly rearranging my plans. I’m also a little worried that my other friends will be upset or judgmental about the fact that I’m missing Gray’s wedding.
The weddings are relatively near one another (about a three-hour drive), so we could theoretically do the rehearsal dinner at one and the actual wedding for the other. I’m not crazy about the extra logistics and planning for that, though, and doing that would also mean missing out on time with the friends from college (some of whom I have not seen in years). But should we just do that? Or, is it OK to stick with Cam’s wedding, have a fun, relaxing weekend with old friends, and then take Gray and their spouse out for a nice dinner some other time? Please help me make a wedding-weekend plan.
A: Your first instinct was right: Go to the wedding you agreed to go to! This is completely OK. Not only did Gray know about the conflict in advance, but they also planned a wedding with only a few months’ notice. Believe me, they expected a lot of people to return that RSVP card with a “no.” And it wouldn’t be fair to Cam to leave early. No reasonable adult will judge you for making this very straightforward and fair choice. (On the other hand, Cam has every right to be annoyed with Blair for bailing, but that’s not my business.)
I can tell you care about Gray a lot, so make sure you carve out some time to celebrate their marriage. The fact that this is all happening on such a short timeline tells me they might not be super-wedded to tradition, so if it feels right, ask if you can make an appearance at one of the pre-wedding celebrations or make a plan to take the newly married couple out for dinner afterward.
Q. Re: Do I stay? When I read your description of your fiancé, I was reminded of something that stuck with me from Gavin de Becker’s landmark book, Gift of Fear. He writes that “charming” is a trait people perform, not something they are, and when we see it, we’d do well to ask ourselves what that person’s goal is.
A: Right. “Is this person trying to charm me?” can be a useful question.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: We’ll wrap it up here. Thanks for joining, and thanks for your patience with technical difficulties that let commenters reply directly to the chat and made things a little chaotic this time. We’re fixing the bug so things should be back to normal next week.
From Care and Feeding
My 5-year-old son is in kindergarten, and things are going very well overall. We like the teacher a lot, but I have a problem with one of her classroom policies, and I’m not sure how best to address it with her. My son enjoys singing and humming. He almost always sings or hums as he goes about his day. The rule in the classroom is that singing and humming are not allowed during instructional or work times, but they are allowed during both indoor and outdoor free play. That is all very reasonable, and my son is adjusting well to this rule. The problem is that my son and several of his classmates LOVE the song “Old Town Road.”