Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Masked but sad: A former high school classmate “Becky” attempted suicide and it’s partially my brother-in-law’s (“Bill”) fault. Becky became locally famous in our small town for opposing mask mandates during school board meetings. Obviously, I disagree with Becky on this, but Bill doxxed her social media to uncover that she believed the QAnon theory that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still alive. Rather than focus on the mask issue, Bill and his allies tormented Becky at every turn over this conspiracy theory. They questioned her mental health, her intelligence, and her ability to parent because of it. When she spoke at school board meetings, Bill organized people to stand in the back of the auditorium holding signs that said “JFK Jr. Died in 1999.” Whenever she posted to Facebook community groups, someone would pop up and ask her about JFK Jr. Bill got the coffee shop on our main street to put up a sign that offered free drinks to anyone who could prove JFK Jr. was still alive. It was relentless.
Becky became a laughingstock and was humiliated. I really don’t know what else was going on in her life (I knew her as a kid but we were never friends), but she overdosed on pills after all this went down. Thankfully she survived. Bill has no remorse or compassion. He told me “the physical health of innocent kids is more important than the mental health of one bad adult.” I’m horrified by that attitude and I don’t know if I can maintain a relationship with Bill and my sister (his wife) after witnessing this cruelty. What can I do?
A: It goes without saying that if you find someone cruel, mean, or even just off-putting, you don’t have to be around them, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to cut them off. But since you asked, I would encourage you to think about this: How did you feel about Bill’s actions before Becky’s overdose? If I were you, I would judge him and decide on my relationship with him based on what he did and how it lined up with my values, rather than on what the outcome was. If you’re horrified that he made her a laughingstock for her beliefs about JFK Jr. and don’t want to be around him anymore, that’s fair. But if you weren’t upset about what he was doing until she took the pills, which was a pretty unpredictable outcome of the social media sparring, you might want to rethink your reaction.
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Q. Hard waters: My boyfriend really enjoys surfing. Before we met, I had never surfed and wasn’t really interested in doing so, but wasn’t opposed either. I honestly just didn’t think about it! I went a handful of times with my boyfriend and really didn’t enjoy it—I was very bad and (mildly) injured myself every time. He also isn’t the greatest instructor and companion for a novice; he has a “just dive in” mentality that doesn’t jibe well with the kind of learner I am and also meant I was exposed to some crazy waves before I could even consistently get standing.
All that aside, it just doesn’t seem like a hobby for me and I think that’s fine, but my boyfriend is insistent I just need to try harder or get professional instruction. He says he wants to go on group trips where we all surf together. I’m actively a fan of going on these trips (who would say no to Hawaii and Australia?), I just wouldn’t want to actually surf. I could hang out on the beach and even prepare meals for the group (I am a talented and enthusiastic cook). He said that would be “no fun” for him and he really needs me to join him surfing for the trip to be fun. I don’t see this as a major issue, but my boyfriend is so, so insistent. Am I really being a terrible killjoy by not learning to surf?
A: I don’t think you’re a killjoy! But he might. And I guess he’s entitled to his opinion. Dating is for finding out whether you’re compatible, and I’m sorry to say you two have reached an impasse (over a ridiculous issue) that proves you’re not.
Q. Busted budget: How do I get on the same page as my husband regarding finances? I have attempted more than a dozen times to create a budget for our household. My husband makes significantly more than me, with my take-home paycheck being less than half of what he brings home. He constantly complains that I ask him for money, but when I explain this to him (literally a breakdown of where “my money” is going), his responses are typically cruel and frankly make me question why I am with him. He has told me it is not his fault that he makes more than me and that that doesn’t give me the right to “spend all his money.”
I am not asking for us to travel or for lavish things; I am asking for home improvement money or for him to pay for the grocery trip that I cannot pay for. There are times that I go without to make sure our children have their needs met because I feel uncomfortable asking him for money. I know this isn’t how it should be and I don’t know how to get it better. What should I do?
A: The question is not “How do I get on the same page as my husband regarding finances” but “How do I get out of a relationship that involves financial abuse?” Please read the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s description of financial abuse, which includes the following:
Financial abuse is behavior that seeks to control a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy. … Examples of financial abuse include: forcing a partner to miss, leave or be late to work; harassing a partner at work; controlling how money is spent; withholding money or basic living resources; giving a partner an ‘allowance’ …
That should sound familiar. Your husband’s cruel responses when you ask for money and his refusal to provide enough money to buy groceries for the household are not OK, and you don’t deserve to be treated this way or to go without so your children can survive. I realize this is an enormous, overwhelming task, but start thinking about an exit plan. Maybe this involves putting away a tiny bit of cash at a time, or thinking about whether you have friends and family who can help you out as you make the transition to living on your own. Even if you suddenly got a raise and didn’t need help from him, you wouldn’t want to be married to someone who had so little regard for your well-being.
Q. Sad sister: I need advice about how to help my older sister who, after having been divorced for a few years, wants to start dating again. There are several barriers, though, and I’m afraid to talk to her about them. I don’t want to upset her, but it might be difficult to find a suitable partner.
My sister (54) is very heavy (5’2” and well over 200 lbs) because of the medications she takes. These medications and their side effects have caused her to be disabled to the extent that she has trouble with daily tasks, like dishes, walking to the store, etc. She trembles sometimes because of a side effect of a medication she’s been taking for almost 30 years.
She’s not a beauty, but she has pretty blue eyes and curly hair. She’s honestly the sweetest person you’ve ever met. She has multiple degrees, and is creative with a sharp intelligence. She’s very spiritual as a member of a church, but not religious. She’s full of compassion and concern for others. She can’t stand to see others suffer and can be taken advantage of.
The bottom line is she is desperately lonely, and I spend what time I have to spare with her. She calls me several times a day, which I welcome, and I sometimes spend the night with her, even though I’m in an eight-year relationship and about to be engaged. My boyfriend likes her and understands. I’m concerned for her for many reasons, but especially concerned about her loneliness because it could trigger more serious depression, and because it just sucks in general.
Can anyone help? Where can she find someone suitable? Is it at all worth it for her to join a dating site like Our Time? She’s got a lot to offer someone, but at first glance, most people would turn away. Please, any advice you can offer, please rack your brains if you will.
A: I don’t think I would want anyone who described me as “not a beauty,” felt sorry for me, and worried that my disabilities made me unappealing to have anything to do with my dating life. There are people in the world—maybe your sister’s friends from church—who see all the good qualities in her that you do but don’t pity her or think “most people would turn away from her.” So let them help her think about how to meet people. Or let her do it herself, by downloading an app, or smiling at people she finds attractive, or some other way. As much as you clearly love her and are loyal to her and want her to be happy, your attitude about her perceived shortcomings just isn’t the energy she needs as she tries to get back out there. Your job is just to be her sister, and it sounds like you’re a good one. Continue to talk to her and visit her and let her know she’s loved, but don’t start a matchmaking process that’s primarily motivated by pity.
Q. Outed and vilified: I kept the secret for almost 45 years that my best friend’s father made a pass (which included inappropriate touching) at me when I was 12 years old and then continued to sexually harass me until I was the ripe old age of 34.
I decided I might get some insight into the situation if I could talk it over with my friend’s close cousin, to try and assess whether telling my friend about this might finally help me. I had always maintained that what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, but it was suggested to me that continuing to keep that secret might be hurting me.
What I didn’t expect was the cousin taking it upon herself to flip the email I wrote her and sending it to my friend. This shocked and appalled me. That was not my intention and she outed me without so much as a warning.
Now no one will speak to me. At first I couldn’t believe it and I tried a few times to make contact with my friend, but it was made clear that she wouldn’t speak to me. This has been confusing and hurtful and my question is: How is this my fault?
A: The answer is: It’s not your fault at all. The man who sexually harassed and assaulted you is the person who should be ostracized, not you. You’re totally justified in feeling confused and hurt. Telling the truth about what happened to you and being punished for it is every survivor’s worst fear. I know this is much easier said than done, but forget your best friend and her cousin. I am sure your friend recognizes the truth in what you wrote—she grew up with her dad, after all—and is pushing you away as a way of trying to ignore what I’m sure is a very painful reality for her. But that’s not your problem. You deserve to talk to someone who will listen to you (try a therapist or a survivors group or even a supportive online community) and tell you again and again that they believe you and it wasn’t your fault.
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Q. Re: Hard waters: I am a scuba diver, not a surfer, but also something of an extreme-ish water sport so it’s comparable. Your boyfriend is wrong to pressure you. It’s a safety thing—you should only be doing it if you were into it. At the very least, he should be willing to make serious compromises, including surfing with you at your level some of the time and cheerfully saying “OK” when you want to sit the harder ones out. The fact that he doesn’t want to make compromises is a big red flag. Not sure about surf culture but most divers would be grateful if their partner even is supportive of the sport, and one who would actually try it is the holy grail. If he keeps pushing, he is not being a good surfer or a good boyfriend.
A: Totally agree. His inflexibility on this is weird and controlling.
Q. Re: Busted budget: Have your husband take over more of the household management so that he has more insight into the true expenses involved. And get to marriage counseling! Otherwise a divorce attorney consultation may be in order.
A: I don’t feel super optimistic that someone who won’t share money will share household management or be a good participant in counseling. It doesn’t even seem like he sees himself as part of a partnership! But these ideas are good and definitely worth a try.
Q. Re: Busted budget: Uhh, you can’t get him on the same page unless he wants to be. You might want to check in with a marriage therapist as well. You can point out that if the two of you were to divorce, the court would have ordered him to pay for those things, as well as paying part of the cost of your separate abode. The idea of “his” money and “my” money is crazy. You’re a family. He needs to pay his share.
A: That’s a good point about how expensive divorce could be for him. But I don’t know, does the letter writer want to be married to someone who’s only giving her grocery money because it’s cheaper than separating? I wouldn’t.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining (and for correcting me!). Get your questions ready for next week.
From How to Do It
My wife of 35 years and I have widely divergent feelings about her premarital sexual history: I’m completely turned on by it and love hearing about her experiences, but she’s fairly tight-lipped about discussing them with me. She’s a lovely, elegant, and intelligent woman with a charmingly offbeat personality who graduated from a very well-regarded college and then from law school, so she dated a lot of men and had sex with maybe five or six of them—a few casual screws as well as a two-year-long engagement that she ultimately broke off. I, on the other hand, had a very limited sex life before I met her. She describes nearly all of her sexual encounters in pejorative terms: “indiscretions” or “slip-ups” or “lack of restraint.” Here’s the heart of the matter: I love to hear down-and-dirty details about the sex she had with the other guys.