Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Don’t want to lose a friend: My friend is married to someone I don’t particularly like. We get together mostly just the two of us, but he has been invited to things that include other friends of mine or my family. One of those events was a child’s birthday party a few years ago. While there, he mocked the way one child spoke, made jokes about how another couldn’t figure out something that he deemed to be very basic, and also commented negatively that one of the children wasn’t potty trained at her age. All three incidents occurred with the children present. (I have examples of other problematic behavior, but for length, this is the most relevant.)
They’ve recently had a baby. She tells me things her husband does that make it clear he is at minimum inept as a parent and at worst outright abusive. He regularly gaslights her, and I feel that she shares his parenting issues with me as a gauge to see if what he is saying is true (that he just parents a different way, that he’s “just joking,” that she’s overprotective, etc.). So I am pretty honest with her when we talk, but I feel like addressing the birthday party behavior would put her concerns into proper perspective because multiple parties witnessed it and every single one of them saw his behavior for what it was: bullying and abusive. It was long ago, but still a very good example. Do I need to just let it go and mind my own business? But if I don’t mind my own business, is there a good way to even bring this up?
A: I think you should divide these situations into two categories: things she tells you about her husband and things her husband does in your presence.
When it comes to things she tells you: If you feel she’s looking for perspective and validation about her husband’s latest behavior, absolutely give it to her. Make it crystal clear that you don’t agree with the insulting things he says to her and repeat as often as you can that you hate that she’s being made to question herself and feel insecure. Let her know that seeing her in distress and not being supported as a new mom is upsetting to you. Keep the focus on her and how she’s feeling rather than vilifying him, just because you don’t want to make her feel she has to defend him or choose between the two of you. But do listen to your gut feeling that he could become abusive, and make sure she’s aware that if she ever needs to get away (you can frame it as “if you ever need a break”), your house is a safe place.
When it comes to things her husband does in front of you: Address each instance as it happens, especially if he’s being insulting or abusive to children. “What do you mean by that?” “Wow, that’s harsh,” “I don’t think that’s true,” “You’re kidding, right?,” and “There are kids around who can hear you” are all good starts. It’s too late to go back and report on his birthday party conduct, but be ready to speak up next time it happens.
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Q. Bad cat roommate: My whole life, I’ve desperately wanted a cat. A couple of weeks ago I finally got one, and I’ve sobbed every night since we adopted her. I’m honestly miserable. I want to rehome her while she is still young and highly adoptable, before she is strongly bonded to us and it would be traumatic. But my husband is attached and dead-set against it.
I have bad OCD and anxiety that I have never been able to improve, no matter what treatment I try. To me, the outside world is dirty, contaminated, and exhausting; home was always my clean and controlled oasis. Now, I feel like I’m living in my cat’s stinky, chaotic nest, and I no longer have a safe place to decompress. I have lived with my relatives’ cats before, and I always loved them. Before we adopted my cat, I researched and prepared. But now that a cat is mine, it’s excruciating.
The cat makes my house smell like a dirty barnyard, she bites me every time we snuggle, she destroys my possessions, and she is impervious to bite/scratch training and prevention methods. She tries to eat everything, and I’m terrified she’ll destroy the savings I spent 10 years scrimping together by swallowing everything, down to the paint off the walls. She yowls and paws at me while I’m working, no matter where I move in the house, to the point where I’m having a hard time doing my job. I know that this stuff is normal kitten behavior. I know that I’m the problem. I know that she’s objectively a fine cat and that everyone who reads this will hate me. I feel crushingly guilty.
I would never, ever mistreat her or withhold attention or care. I dote on her so much that I’m actually her favorite person! But I just don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m having to choose between keeping my husband of 10 years and having my OCD triggered 24/7 for the next 15-plus years of my life.
A: I’m not going to lie—there are a lot of people who will absolutely think rehoming a cat that you’ve adopted is a mortal sin, and they’ll totally judge you. But I don’t know if that judgment would be worse than the feelings you’re dealing with right now. The cat can find love and safety elsewhere. But your mental health can’t be replaced, and living without a single anxiety-free moment for weeks at a time is a recipe for disaster. Try to communicate this to your husband, and let him know you’ll take responsibility for finding the best possible new home for your pet.
If he won’t agree, perhaps there is a middle ground. A lot of the behaviors that are bothering you, although they may be “normal kitten behavior,” can probably be addressed and changed. But your husband has to understand the urgency of doing the research or consulting with a vet to figure out how to give the cat what it needs so that it is quieter and less destructive. If he loves the cat as much as he said, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Q. Fat and flustered: I am a small-fat young white woman who recently started a job where my direct supervisor is a middle-aged white man. He has made recurring fatphobic comments that are minor at the surface level but make it clear that he has the mindset that fatness is a choice and that fat people deserve unwellness and are responsible if ill-health befalls them. He also says ob*se a lot, which is considered a slur by many in the fat liberation movement. I don’t actually think that he has noticed that I am fat, and I certainly haven’t discussed it with him. But these remarks are very painful for me to hear. We are also in a caring profession that involves teaching and counseling, and I am anxious about what he would say to fat people who come to him. What should I do? Although we have a good rapport generally, I can’t imagine that he would respond well to me trying to correct him. However, I am not sure that I can tolerate this long term.
A: It’s tempting to say you have every right to speak up and let him know he sounds like an ignorant bigot from 30 years ago. But I understand that this is your boss, and in a workplace, there can be negative consequences for doing the right thing. I’m sure you aren’t willing to risk your employment or an opportunity for promotion by getting on his bad side, and I wouldn’t encourage you to. But I do think there’s a way to bring your concerns to his attention. This might be easier for you to say—and easier for him to receive—if you think of it less as “correcting” him and more as being vulnerable and opening up to someone who you assume is in this profession because he wants to connect with and help people. In the same way managers use the infamous “shit sandwich” to deliver feedback, packaging critiques between two compliments, you can stick your commentary between two acknowledgments that he is the boss, and you’re not in a position to tell him what to do. How about something like:
“Jim, can I talk to you about something? I feel awkward saying this because you’re my supervisor and I know it’s not really my place to give you feedback. But a lot of the comments you make about fat people and how we deserve whatever happens to us really hurt my feelings. I’ve read a lot about the latest thinking, and I don’t know if you’re open to hearing more about it, but I did want to tell you how it made me feel and how it could possibly make some of our clients and students feel. Again, I debated about whether it would be appropriate for me to bring this concern to you, but since we have a good relationship, I thought you might be open to hearing it.”
Q. Haunted by a dead name: Growing up, my mother had terrible taste in partners, and each one left their scars on my psyche (and in some cases, her skin). I am slowly untangling the PTSD through therapy, time, and being 2,000 miles away, but my issue is the last of those terrible partners has recently come out as transgender. I believe everyone should live as they feel most themselves, and I can see how a lifetime of repression would have contributed to the issues that wrecked my home life throughout high school, but I don’t know how to refer to these memories now when discussing them. This person hasn’t been in my life for a long time, despite her insistence on drunkenly Facebook messaging me in the dead of night (which is how I know about the transition). I know I owe her nothing; I also know that a bad person still deserves to have their pronouns respected. But my memories, and the trauma of them, are old. Do I retrofit my stories with the new name and pronouns, and have to explain to people who know my history? Or do I just pretend I’m talking about someone dead?
A: I’m so sorry you went through this. First step: Unfriend this person on Facebook! And every other social media platform! There is absolutely no reason she should have access to you, in the dead of the night or any other time. You say she hasn’t been in your life for a long time, but if she has a way to reach you and uses it, she’s there.
In therapy—where you’re hopefully doing most of your talking about your bad childhood experiences—you should feel free to use the name and pronouns that you’re used to. I say this because the priority in those sessions should be processing your trauma, without concern for the language you’re using. And because of the confidential nature of the relationship, there is no way your mom’s ex is going to find out and be hurt by the words you use.
When you talk to friends and family in your everyday life, give them a brief update and make an effort to retrofit your stories, but don’t beat yourself up if you need to correct yourself as you get used to the change.
Q. Re: Bad cat roommate: I’ve volunteered as a pet foster and adoption coordinator for over 10 years. If there’s a specific personality you’d like your pet to have, I always recommend adopting an adult animal. You know what you’ll get, unlike when you adopt a puppy or a kitten. Also, rehoming pets after adopting them is more common than you’d think. In the long run, you want what’s best for the pet. Be gentle with yourself.
A. This is good to hear. And I hope the letter writer’s husband reads it too. The cat should live with someone who thinks its antics are cute.
Q. Re: Bad cat roommate: I absolutely agree with Prudie. If you think about adopting a cat again, go for a lounging senior cat. Spend time finding the right fit—now you know this. Kittens are desperately difficult, as cute and adorable as they are. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Kittens have a habit of really turning a home upside down.
A: A lounging senior cat sounds like a much better idea! But given the letter writer’s extreme cat anxiety, I would actually not suggest trying again. I’m sure it’s not the best thing for an animal to be rehomed, and I wouldn’t want to set another pet up for that fate if it ends up having a different issue that makes it hard to live with. This person does not seem to be equipped to deal with the inconveniences that come with owning even the calmest animal, and that’s OK.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for today! Be kind to one another, do your research before adopting an animal, and try to behave until next week.
From How to Do It
Last night, I went on a date someone who I had met somewhat spontaneously a week or so ago. I don’t normally click with people this easily, and I was so glad our connection didn’t start on an app, so I followed the mood a little more than I might have otherwise and went back to his place. We slept together, and it lived up to the rest of the night. But in the afterglow, he casually let it drop that he’s dating someone seriously, but they’re open. I felt extremely betrayed, like he got me in bed under false pretenses.