Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. The elephant in the family: I recently got married, and just spent my first Christmas with my partner’s family. One of my mother-in-law’s traditions is buying everyone in the family the same gift from the store where she works (an outdoorsy lifestyle brand). This year, she chose to buy everyone coats from an expensive brand that stops at an XL. I’m plus-sized, and the coat didn’t even come close to fitting. She prefaced giving me the gift by saying she worried it wouldn’t fit, then had me try it on in front of everyone, which was humiliating. To top it off, several members of the family have recently lost large amounts of weight, and their weight loss was celebrated by my MIL. All day, fat people were derided as unattractive, while fitness and thinness were held up as the ideal.
I spent a good chunk of the evening hiding in the basement crying. I feel like I quite literally don’t fit into my spouse’s family. If this were any other relationship, I would explain to her that I would prefer that she not buy me clothing as her store does not carry my size. But she is extremely petite and is of the belief that fatness is the result of lack of willpower, so I really don’t want to open that conversational door. What can I do to prevent future miserable Christmases?
A: Clueless and fatphobic people are everywhere, so I’m not that surprised by your partner’s family’s behavior. But what about your partner? Where were they when this was going on? When you were crying in the basement? Afterward when it was clear that you were upset? I’m worried that they didn’t stand up for you, comfort you, or, at the very least, prepare you for what you might encounter and give you the option to skip the event. I think you should have a talk with him or her about how this affected you and see what plan you can come up with together to make sure you’re not humiliated at future family gatherings.
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Q. Christmas crash: So my much older brother “surprised” my mother and I with his new girlfriend and her two teenagers for Christmas. They had been barely dating, but it was “expected” we would have presents for the girls under the tree since my brother and their mother were broke. I am 20 and work full time.
We panicked. My mother spent her bonus to get gift cards, while I raided my closet. I made a big gift basket for the girlfriend with the bath bombs, candles, and candies that friends have gotten me. Her girls are of a similar size to me (my brother had told me that several times), so I got my gently worn rejects and went through them and settled on two nice coats, several loose sweaters, hats, and matching gloves. I’d literally worn them twice; I regift a lot and go to thrift stores. All of the items were color-coded according to my brother’s advice.
Everything went great on Christmas Eve. The girls seemed actually delighted with our gifts. Then my ex-stepsister “Jay” decided to crash the holiday at the last minute. Jay showed up and got drunk and spent the weekend. She recognized several of the clothes I regifted. And commented loudly.
Things turned tense but seemed fine until today. My brother sent me several awful texts about how I “humiliated” him and “shamed” his girlfriend’s girls with my “trash.” I was “living off” our mother while he was independent at my age. I laughed and told him to go to hell and to repeat it to his girlfriend. She is an awful mother. He was an awful brother. Get a job. I regretted it as soon as I hit send but he is a decade older than me and I work retail. Who expects great gifts from strangers?
I have fractured my family. My mother screamed at me for my reply and we both cried. Jay excused herself because she drank too much. I am so tired. Our dad and other sister died when I was young and my brother claims it was too traumatic for him to “deal” with. Our mother works two jobs and goes to school. We tried. And Jay fucked everything up.
Why am I responsible? Am I responsible?
A: You are not responsible. You went above and beyond to make sure the girls would have something to open, when you didn’t know them and owed them nothing. Let this be a lesson about how to respond to this kind of unreasonable expectation in the future: Refuse to engage with them. Something like “You mentioned that we’re expected to get gifts for your girlfriend’s daughters. I just want you to know before you come over that it’s not in my budget, but if they’re OK with coming over and not receiving gifts, it would be great to meet them” probably wouldn’t have made your brother happy, but it would have gotten the argument out of the way a lot earlier and without so much time and effort on your part.
Q. Destined to be dateless: I am a usually content single 30-year-old female. But in two months, my mother is getting married. She has already tried to set me up with her fiancé’s nephew (which, while technically not, still feels vaguely incestuous) and a former employee (good guy but not for me). Now her fiancé has decided the wedding is the perfect time to introduce me to all his single co-workers (no, just no). Add in all the well-minded aunties asking me when I’m going to find a “nice man and settle down,” and to say I’m not looking forward to the evening is an understatement.
My solution? Take my own date. No awkward setups if I already have a date. Probably still inappropriate questions from the aunties, but at least I wouldn’t have to face them alone. So four months ago I signed up for a dating app … and have since been reminded why I’m happily single.
My question is this: With the wedding only two months away, do I admit defeat and go solo? There comes a point where taking someone that I don’t know well comes with its own problems. I also feel their wedding is not the best time to “meet the parents.”
A: You don’t have to deal with unwanted hookups or digging up last-minute dates for this wedding. There’s another great option: You can say very clearly to everyone who suggests setting you up, “Thanks for thinking of me but I’m not interested in being introduced to anyone. Please respect that. I’m going to get some cake now.” This is a much more practical plan than bringing someone to the wedding simply to avoid annoying comments—which wouldn’t be fair to a guy who actually thought you liked him. And it will begin to teach your relatives that even if they mean well, you really don’t need them to be involved in your dating life.
Q. Cheated on with a game: I recently moved in with my partner. Everything is going great except one thing—her video game addiction. Before we were living together, I supported the hobby because it helped her process her emotions and escape the world, which can be very tough on her. But now, I find myself struggling to get her attention and feeling ignored. It’s to the point where she brought the game to Christmas with my family and was checked out of conversations because she was playing the game. I can’t tell if it’s unfair of me to feel this way; after all, this is what helps her unwind and relax. Is it fair to ask her to limit when she plays, and how do I go about asking?
A: Bringing a video game to play around your partner’s family on Christmas is not normal. And it’s definitely not unfair of you to be upset about feeling ignored. You should say something. I would just frame it slightly differently: less as asking her to limit when she plays and more as telling her how you’re feeling and how her relationship with the game is affecting you. After all, even if she agreed to an explicit limit, you would resent feeling like the parent of a 4-year-old who’s constantly monitoring and policing screen time, and she would resent living under someone else’s rules. If this is going to work out, it’s going to be because she cares enough about your experience to voluntarily cut back and give more attention to your real-life interactions. You could even frame your conversation as a request for what you would like her to do (be available for conversation when socializing with your parents, and watch TV or talk to you in the evenings, for example) rather than making it about cutting back on the game.
Q. Hopefully curious: I am a female virgin in her 20s. I’ve never been interested in dating until recently. I would like to try out some dating apps and was wondering when would be the “right” time to tell the person I am interested in that I’m a virgin. Is there any “right” time or should I keep my status quiet?
A: This is going to come off as a flip answer but I mean it sincerely: You should tell them when and if you want them to know.
That means: not after a certain number of dates, not when you think they would want to know, and not out of any sense of obligation. But if things are going well, there will come a moment when you start to trust them and feel moved to open up. Maybe after they’ve told you a couple of personal things. Maybe when you’re up late on your third hour of FaceTime and it just comes up. You’ll know because you feel like saying it, and you feel safe and comfortable. Keep in mind, dating apps lead to lots of fleeting connections and crappy dates for most who use them, so don’t expect to get there with everyone or even most of the people you meet.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for today. Thanks for the questions. FYI, we’re not doing a live chat next week (instead, we’ll be posting the most popular letters from 2021), but I’ll be back Jan. 10.
From How to Do It
Recently, I was hooking up with a guy from Grindr who was behaving a bit oddly. He invited me to his apartment building but said we had to meet in the building’s pool showers and not his apartment because he was being “discreet.” I assumed that meant he didn’t want the neighbors seeing him bringing random men. When I got to the locker room—private stalls, no one else around!—we started to do our thing, but he got extremely paranoid at any sound, like a door shutting down the hallway, and we had to keep pausing. (It was silly, but he was hot, so you tolerate things.) After we finally finished, we were getting dressed in the locker area, and he said, “Sorry if I seemed jumpy, but I’m married and I live with my wife here.” Wife. In an apartment down the hall. Dude!