Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Should I? My sister has been married to her emotionally and verbally abusive husband for 35 years. He had numerous affairs during the late ’90s and early 2000s (and perhaps longer than that). The reason I know this is because he told me! During this same time period, he used to stop by my place of work to complain about my sister’s lack of interest in sex and describe in detail her disinterest. And, worst of all, he propositioned me for sex by using the fact I was divorced (and probably horny) as an excuse.
I have kept this secret for more than 20 years. He is currently being hospitalized for some heart issues. My sister didn’t tell me until I called her to inquire about something and found out she was at the hospital with him. When I offered to go to the hospital to be with her, she made a disgusted noise and said, “Like you care.” No, I don’t care about him. He is a disgusting human being.
At this point, I am tired of being treated like a heartless person because I do my best to stay away from him. I have been on the receiving end of his outbursts numerous times and have been called the C-word during his tantrums. I am all for maintaining family harmony (and hanging in there to support my sister), which is why I have kept silent, but I’m at the point where I want to give her all this information and let the chips fall where they may. Should I?
A: I’ve said before that I don’t think a man confesses his infidelity to his wife’s sister because he really wants it to remain a secret. You should tell her—but once he’s out of the hospital and his health is stable.
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Q. Is there a happy medium? My fiancé and I want to start planning our wedding, but we’re not sure how to navigate having both families there. While my S.O. and I are white, as are our immediate family members, two of my sisters are married to POC and have mixed-race children.
My fiancé’s father has been a lifelong racist, though his family does not embrace those views. His father used to keep a lid on his opinions in public but due to what his wife believes is dementia setting in, he has slowly been saying VERY inappropriate things about POC when shopping, at church, or out to dinner. I thought he might be able to be courteous at a wedding, but their daughter visited with her adopted POC child and he refused to interact with or be in pictures with them, and cornered her to ask why she couldn’t have adopted a nice white baby.
We want both of our families to celebrate with us but are concerned about how my future FIL will behave toward the POC members of my side of the family, so much so that we haven’t announced our engagement to anyone yet. His parents would be heartbroken if we don’t invite his dad, but neither of us want to ask that my family endure his remarks, even padded with “His mind is slipping and he says hateful things sometimes.” I fear we won’t be able to have the big wedding we planned on but I’ve never encountered this situation before so I don’t know if I’m missing an obvious solution that would afford us a family event, or if we’ll have to elope or just bite the bullet and ban him from the festivities.
A: I’m always going to vote for prioritizing the innocent nonracists over the racist. So I’d say to leave him off the list. No one deserves to put up with his behavior. If it makes you feel better, you can say, “You’ve made it clear how much you don’t want to be around people of color, so we are doing you a favor by letting you skip this.”
Q. Trying to be kind: My best friend’s mother died a couple months ago following a long cancer battle. My friend is handling things all right but is more concerned about her now-widower father, who is apparently struggling to leave the house and has nothing to do (he is retired). My friend and her sister have decided that what their dad needs is a puppy, so he has a purpose to his day and a reason to get out of the house for walks and dog training classes, and they’ve decided to gift him a puppy as a surprise. I know my friend is still grieving and just wants to help her dad, so how can I gently explain to her and her sister that dogs aren’t good gifts and this is a terrible idea?
A: I think it’s pretty well known that you are not supposed to give animals as presents. A quick Google search pulled up the following results and many others:
“Ads Explain Why Animals Shouldn’t Be Given as Gifts,” “Why You Shouldn’t Give Puppies As Gifts This Christmas,” “Puppies are long-term commitments, not last-minute gifts,” “This Holiday Season, Remember: A Puppy Is NOT a Present.”
So you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some talking points for the substance of your argument. The question is: How can you give her this information without making her feel attacked, when she’s clearly feeling desperate to do something to make her father feel better? I’d say you should express concern not just for the animal (which is the obvious issue) but also about how traumatizing it will be for him if the dog is too much to handle, won’t let him rest, or has to be rehomed if it doesn’t work out.
Q. Tempted teetotaler: I quit drinking two years ago after a 10-year battle with alcoholism. I am rarely tempted to take a drink; remembering my behavior in the past and how physically ill drinking made me is enough of a deterrent to keep me from wanting to drink. The problem is that I’m not “out” to my friends and family. They think I quit drinking for health reasons (partially true). I have one friend in particular, “Steve,” who goes out of his way to order me drinks when I see him. I always politely decline, but I’d really like it if he stopped. Is it time to out myself as a recovering alcoholic, or is there some other way to get him to stop?
A: “Steve, you know I’ve decided to stop drinking. I really don’t like it when you order for me or pressure me. Please don’t do it again.”
It might make sense to talk to at least a few other people who are recovering alcoholics to hear about how they handle these situations, and learn about whether and why they see value in being open about their reasons. It seems like keeping this secret makes it feel much more shameful than it needs to be. But ultimately, the decision is yours and anyone who needs a complete explanation to respect your wishes is not a good friend.
Q. Insecure and monogamous: I’m in love with my boyfriend. There’s only one issue: He’s poly and I’m not. He recently got a new boyfriend (I’m a guy as well), and I can’t stop myself from being insecure. I’m mentally ill and I’m going to therapy and am on medication, but nothing helps me with my bipolar disorder. I’ve always had a bit of an inferiority complex, and I fear that he likes this guy better than me. I’m also a little pessimistic, so I fear that he got this boyfriend to have someone better than me. If this is my reaction, should I break up with him or try to work on it? I love this guy a lot.
A: If you’re in the middle of finding the best treatment for your bipolar disorder, the last thing you need is a relationship that makes you feel insecure and stressed. It’s possible you might change your mind about dating someone who’s poly in the future, or you might become less insecure and pessimistic in a way that makes a relationship like this easier on you. Who knows. Break up for now, before your dissatisfaction with this arrangement causes a huge conflict, and tell yourself that if it’s meant to be, you can always get back together in the future. But not before you give your mental health the attention it deserves.
Q. Re: Is there a happy medium? This happened in my family, although the racist relative was not an immediate family member. Will there be fallout? Sure. It hasn’t been pretty in my family but you know what? We’re all breathing a little easier at family events without our racist uncle there.
This is not just a problem that is going to occur at your wedding—there are going to be birthday parties, graduations, etc. (especially if you have children). Set the boundary early and often that a prerequisite to being included in family events is a zero-tolerance policy for racism. This is even more important as including him would likely be directly harming your own relatives. Anything else is just tolerating (and therefore enabling) his racism.
A: I agree. Not being racist—or keeping those thoughts in your head—is not a lot to ask. And he was like this before he was believed to have dementia! So I don’t feel sorry for him at all. Someone has to win here, and it should be the people who aren’t awful.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for today. Thanks, everyone! Talk to you next time. That will be Tuesday, Jan. 18, since we’re off on Monday.
From How to Do It
I am a 43-year-old man, and my wife is 41. We married when I was 31 and my wife was 29. She never had sex before we got together, not even masturbation, because of her conservative upbringing. On my part, I started masturbation in seventh grade, and I first had sex while I was 16. We enjoyed ourselves the first few years. After that, she seemed to lose interest. I think she had a few real orgasms, but mainly faked them.
Now, I always suspected this was because I am not very big—I’m about 3.5 inches erect, and I tend to ejaculate quickly. I told her about bigger men, since she really had no idea, and said she could try another man, since I had 13 to 15 sex partners before we were married and she had none. I wavered on this a few times as I got insecure and jealous, but in one of my more permissive times, she met a man and liked him. I tried to call it off, but she wants to go forward. Should I let this happen?