Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Trying to be understanding: A few months ago, my boyfriend “Ed” and I started couples therapy. The initial reason was due to arguments over his insomnia—he would have a tendency to get in and out of bed multiple times a night, and we would fight bitterly over it. The counselor recommended some medical and eventually psychiatric tests for Ed, and we walked away with some new diagnoses. Insomnia was expected.
ADHD was not. He’s probably had ADHD for most of his life, but Ed is unbelievably sharp. (That was, incidentally, another thing we would fight about: If I came home with a problem like something bad happening at work, he wouldn’t ask me what was wrong, but has this annoying tendency to just look at me and figure it out, and then proceed from there.) The diagnosis led to some new medication, new therapy strategies, and some new revelations at the couples therapy we’re still going to. At our most recent session, he admitted to “having trouble focusing on only one thing at a time,” usually thinking along multiple lines at once, and just viewing that as normal. I asked him if there was ever a time he was ever solely focused on me, thinking about nothing else, and he said no. It hurt a lot to hear that.
I want to be accepting of neurodiversity, and I know he’s not intentionally trying to ignore me or anything. But now I can’t seem to feel emotionally connected to him. We’ll hug, or be in bed, and I’ll be totally in the moment and he’ll be thinking about me. And his job. And his plans for his hobbies, or the latest bridge column, or God knows what else. It shouldn’t bother me, but it hurts terribly and I don’t know how to get over this. What can I do?
A: I can see how it would be upsetting to learn that he’s not ever 100 percent focused on you, but maybe none of us ever focuses 100 percent on a partner. Keep track of your own thoughts and you will probably notice that even when you’re really enjoying spending time with him and not especially preoccupied, other thoughts do enter your mind. He’s described this phenomenon to you because you asked, but it doesn’t sound that far out of the ordinary.
Either way, I don’t recommend going down the road of monitoring what’s happening in your partner’s head. I think if any of us did this we’d end up pretty unhappy. Can you focus instead on how he behaves? When you’re hugging or in bed together, is he acting as if you’re his main focus? Does he dedicate time to your relationship? Does he do things to make you happy? Does he take your needs into consideration? If he’s treating you well and doing all the same things that someone whose brain worked differently would, is there really a problem? You mentioned his annoying tendency to look at you and decide what’s wrong instead of asking you—I think you should focus on issues that truly affect your day-to-day life with him instead of things you would never have known if he didn’t tell you.
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Q. I love him but: After two disastrous marriages, a friend from elementary school and I reconnected. He was friends with my brother and our families were close but we drifted apart after high school. Seeing him again was easy and familiar and we ended up falling in love and getting married. I feel like he is my best friend and soulmate.
But he has an explosive temper. He says it developed as a result of physical abuse from his father. When he gets mad, he will yell and threaten to leave and never come back. Once in a while, he breaks things. We are in therapy and it seems to be going well, but I’m almost 60 and I don’t want to be dealing with this when I’m 70 or 80. Do you think there’s hope?
A: Think of the best friends you’ve had throughout your life and how they treated you. Think of what your definition of “soulmate” is. I’m sure neither of these involves someone yelling at you, breaking things, and threatening to leave you the minute they get upset! I’m not saying there’s no hope, but I don’t think there’s enough hope for you to spend your precious years dealing with this kind of treatment. Think about separating until his temper is under control, and make sure to spend time with lots of other people who can remind you that this behavior isn’t normal or OK. If he stays in therapy on his own and makes big improvements, he can always come back and try to win you over. But I really feel you have better things to do than try to rehabilitate him.
Q. At a loss: I am the manager of a small retail store. I work part time for various reasons, and I really like it there. The only problem is my one co-worker. I hired them (part time) several months ago and despite it being a relatively easy and laid-back job, they struggle to follow directions and work unsupervised. They also lack boundaries and cross mine frequently (e.g., texting me while I am out of town with family to ask if they can leave early for the day). They are pretty good about picking up shifts when we need it and they often ask for extra hours, and yet they’ll sometimes call off those extra shifts anyway. I’d like to replace them, but they have been experiencing a lot of financial and housing issues, so I would feel terrible about firing them. Having to constantly put out fires and hold their hand has me starting to hate my job, but I can’t bring myself to cut them loose.
A: Unless you left this out, you haven’t met with this person to give them feedback and set expectations. Try that before you fire them! Be specific about what you need in terms of following directions and working independently, and what boundaries they shouldn’t cross. Tell them you’re going to be keeping an eye on their performance over a certain period of time, and give them regular feedback. But, for the record, I don’t think you should necessarily reprimand them for calling out—after all, stuff happens and people are allowed to get sick.
Q. Second wife: Four years ago, my co-worker “Alice” died in a car accident. It was a terrible event that shook our entire company. She left behind her husband “Bob,” who also works at the company, and a 5-year-old daughter “Sophie.” Alice was beloved by a lot of people at the company. She was successful, confident, and had a presence about her.
However, Alice did not like me. A couple of weeks prior to her death, she wrote me an email after a project we worked on together and detailed all of the things I did wrong, and finished it by saying that she is going to make sure we never work on another project together. It was a humiliating experience and caused me to leave the company a few months later.
Fast forward to two years ago, and I was invited to hang out with a number of my former co-workers. Bob was at this event, and we ended up having a wonderful conversation. He asked if we could meet again, and even though I was initially hesitant given my relationship with Alice, he was such a nice and earnest man, so I said yes. Two years later, our relationship is wonderful. I also get along great with Sophie! And it’s clear that we are about to take that next step and move in together.
My problem is the memories of Alice that understandably fill his home and occasionally our conversations. He doesn’t seem to know that Alice didn’t like working with me, and that it was her that caused me to leave the company. (In fact, no one seems to know this.) And as we come closer to moving in, he would like me to visit her parents and the site where they spread her ashes. He has noticed that I am hesitant and anxious about this, and has asked why. I don’t want to tell him about my relationship with Alice because she doesn’t deserve to have her memory damaged in such a way. So I am thinking that I just need to “grin and bear it.” But that doesn’t seem to be fair to Bob, Sophie, or to me. What should I do?
A: I actually agree that you should grin and bear it. It would be one thing if Alice had bullied you or been an abusive boss for years, or if you knew a dark secret about her, but you simply had one bad workplace interaction with her. You two really didn’t know each other or have a relationship. That email definitely wasn’t pleasant, and sending it probably wasn’t her best moment, but it doesn’t mean she was an awful person or that she hated you. I think two things can be true at once: that your experience with her involved a conflict and hurt your feelings, and that she was generally known to be a great person.
I also think you should tell Bob about this, and the memory might lose some of its intensity once it’s not a secret. He might very well be like, “Oh, yeah, she could be super Type A about work stuff, that sounds like her. I wish you would have gotten to know her under different circumstances.” Everyone knows that even the best people have unkind, unpleasant moments (I’m sure Bob had his own with Alice!), and the fact that you experienced this doesn’t have to be a dark cloud over your relationship.
Q. Hot child in the city: I live within my house of worship in a major, liberal city. Recently, our dress code saying shoulders and knees must be covered at our city center has been removed, something I am very happy about and have advocated for for years. However, the religious leader of the place (we are both women) still tells me that I need to put more clothes on when I wear something like a short romper in the heat of the summer. My faith has no religious rules about covering the body that we observe; the old guidelines used to label dressing immodestly as “sexual teasing,” so I believe her comments are still based on this. But I feel like this idea blames the victim if someone else is looking inappropriately at them.
I often feel like I’m on thin ice here in many respects, so I want to do what I’m told, but I feel ethically icky submitting to this instruction, and that I would set a bad precedent for the treatment of newer members who may become part of the congregation. I love this place more than absolutely anything and want it to be a welcoming and just place.
For what it’s worth, this is a social justice–oriented place made up almost entirely of those of a dominant American culture, so a cultural difference doesn’t apply. What should I do?
A: This is tricky because most people, even in the most casual workplaces where the term “sexual teasing” has never been uttered, probably wouldn’t wear a short romper to the office. But it sounds like you live where you work (I’m assuming you do some kind of labor exchange for living there or are in some sort of training), so you basically live at the office. Is there a way to separate the times when members of the congregation or the public are there and the times when you’re essentially just hanging around your own home? If so, I would stick to something a tiny bit more pulled together (feel free to let your shoulders and knees show, but think about making sure you have fuller and more secure butt cheek coverage than short rompers tend to offer) when you’re more “on duty.” And then continue to wear whatever you want on your own time. It would also be worth having a conversation with your religious leader about the fact that your choice to move away from the old dress code is intentional and designed to make sure others aren’t mistreated because of what they wear.
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Q. Re: I love him but: Given you’re in the later part of life, I can understand that you probably don’t want to dedicate years to working through these kinds of issues with your new husband. And probably the only way to expedite his ability to work through his anger issues in healthy ways is to set some firm boundaries and stick to them. If he yells and threatens, then call his bluff, ask him to leave, and if he refuses, leave yourself. Ditto for breaking things, even if it’s more rare. He’ll either have to figure out a way forward without flying off the handle or figure out a way forward without you to take the brunt of his tantrums.
A: Good advice. I would just add that I don’t want her to waste too much time trying to train him.
Q. Re: I love him but: As a child of someone who has a father and brother with explosive tempers, I’d say there is hope as long as your husband is committed to changing. My father has improved over the years, but I often wondered, if he had pursued therapy and treatment, if he might have improved even more. The fact that your husband is doing therapy is promising.
Is he making progress? Do you feel comfortable staying for the whole process? Do you feel unsafe when he loses his temper? I think these are some things you should consider.
A: These are good questions. I’d also be interested in knowing more about his attitude toward therapy and how engaged he is.
Q. Re: At a loss: Take it from one manager to another: Cut your losses and dump this person as soon as you can. In my experience, this person’s performance isn’t going to improve over time and will likely get worse. I’m sorry they are in financial straits, but at the same time it’s also not fair to you to constantly have to be picking up their slack. You don’t mention their co-workers, if they have any, but a surefire way to drive off your employees that are actually self-sufficient and reliable is to constantly provide cover for the slacker.
One word of advice before proceeding, though: Thoroughly review your company’s policy regarding progressive disciplinary action and follow it to the letter before proceeding with firing this employee. If all they’ve gotten up to this point is halfhearted “talking-tos,” then the next time they do something warranting it, initiate actual, company-backed disciplinary action and keep a meticulous paper trail. It’s a tough market out there for employers right now, but there is a limit to how much just having a “warm body” can go these days.
A: I get that a lot of managers wouldn’t care about their employee’s ability to survive or feel badly if they plunged someone into poverty, but this person does. So I think it makes sense for them to give their employee a chance to improve—both for the company policy reasons you mention and because of their own sense of decency.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I’m going to wrap it up here. Thanks for the great questions and responses. Talk to you next time!
From How to Do It
I am a straight male. Ever since I was a child, I have thought that the act of open-mouth kissing was gross and disgusting. Another person’s saliva in your MOUTH? Barf! I would be perfectly happy to kiss practically any part of my partner’s body, excepting the mouth and the anus. Now that I am of an age such that most people would like to kiss someone, I am finding it difficult to go beyond hand-holding. How do I communicate this to a partner? I don’t want to seem like I’m judging her oral hygiene, and I know that lots of women find kissing to be an essential part of physical intimacy. I am afraid that I would be rejected if I reveal my freakish abnormality.