Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My wife was in a “Karen” video: My wife was in a very stressful situation about a month ago when she was at a park in our hometown. After trying to balance a full-time job while caring for our three children for four months, she honestly just kind of lost it. She snapped. My wife is now the subject of a “Karen” video that made the rounds last month in our town (luckily it didn’t spread beyond that). She was, and still is, horrified by her behavior. She is seeking counseling for both the “snap” and the underlying thoughts and attitudes that came out in the video.
In the meantime, how do we get back our normal life? Many folks around town are understandably freezing us out, and some of my kids’ friends’ parents are refusing play dates. This is only adding to the loneliness and isolation our family had already been feeling because of the pandemic. I hate to see my kids suffering because of my wife’s unconscionable actions. Short of moving to a new town, what can we do to rebuild the relationships that used to keep us grounded in this awful time?
A: Presumably your “normal” life was the one where your wife was trying to balance a full-time job while caring for your three children, a situation that so overwhelmed her that she “snapped,” so I don’t think you should be too eager to return to it. (One obvious change there might be for you to take on the greater portion of child care for the foreseeable future.) More than that, your “normal” life was also one where your wife apparently harbored certain vague thoughts and attitudes that horrify her—that’s nothing to want to hurry back to. (Do they horrify you?) What have you two communicated to your kids about this, beyond simply “Something happened, it’s horrifying, but we can’t go into detail”?
I would love to know more about the specific “underlying thoughts and attitudes” that came out in the video, because that would help me offer meaningful, context-driven advice. What in particular is she sorry for? What does she now think she could have done differently at the time? How much damage did she cause others? Was she merely rude, or did she threaten someone else’s health and safety? What has she done to try to make amends beyond seeing a therapist? Presumably whatever she did in that park was not related to her stressful full-time job; presumably you referenced “Karen” without going into even the barest of details because she said or did something racist, but you didn’t want to say what it was. Why was your wife’s response to stress to do or say something racist? Is this something she’s discussed with her therapist? Has she apologized to any of your friends or neighbors, and if not, why? What do they want from her, and from you, before they can answer the question of whether they’re ready to rebuild? You cannot demand that your friends rebuild relationships, and you cannot use your kids’ loneliness to pressure others into forgiving their parents. But you can ask the people you know and love, sincerely and nondefensively, what you can do to start to rebuild trust together. Sometimes that might mean giving others time and space, or the freedom to say, “I can’t accept this apology,” but you have to be willing to respect that. Otherwise it’s not an apology at all, but a demand to forget whatever happened.
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Q. Child-free in Albuquerque: My boyfriend (28) and I (26), have been living together for 17 months now and made a cross-country move six months ago. I thought everything was great and was looking forward to getting engaged soon, because he is the love of my life. As it turns out, he thought I would change my mind about not wanting kids—and I thought he was just fine with not having kids. We’ve been through several (pandemic) months of very tough conversations and a lot of crying on my part. I burst into tears watching an episode of House Hunters yesterday in which a couple got engaged.
I think we all know the pluses and minuses of having a child, so I won’t go into them, but my top concerns include the fact that I don’t really like children, I want to have as much alone time together as possible, and if something happened to my partner or we got divorced, I would be stuck raising a child instead of being free to do whatever I want. The thing I attach to on days where it sounds better is the thought of sharing my religion, which means a great deal to me, with my child. But she might not adopt it herself, and my partner is of a different religion and isn’t willing to raise her with only mine. If I wouldn’t have a child if we weren’t together and it’s not my preference, is it something I should just never consider, full stop? Or is this scenario something to think about over the next five years?
A: I think you have considered having children more than once, especially in the last few months. It’s one thing to grant yourself a period of open-minded exploration when your feelings are unclear, but you don’t seem to have unclear feelings at all—only incompatible ones. You don’t want children, and you don’t want to lose your partner, who does want them. But “I really hope we don’t have to break up over this” is not the same thing as “Sometimes I really do want children.” The strongest, warmest, most positive feeling you’ve been able to generate on the thought of having children is “My religion is really important to me, and I’d enjoy sharing it with someone else.” You don’t like children, you don’t like spending time with children, you want to be free to set your own schedule, you want to prioritize time with your partner over time with dependents, and in the event of divorce or bereavement, you’d feel shackled and resentful at the prospect of having to look after a child on your own. I don’t think there’s much here to reconsider, or that’s likely to change in five years’ time. I think you know fairly clearly that you don’t want children. I don’t want you to have a child against your own instincts in the hopes it will keep “the love of your life” close, only to find yourself feeling stuck, frustrated, isolated, beholden, and without options. That would not be a good life for you, and it would not be a healthy environment for your child.
If your partner were willing to take “Well, I don’t really want one, and it’s not my preference, but if it means losing you otherwise, I’m willing to have a child” as enthusiastic entry into child-rearing, then frankly I’d be concerned about his values and general fitness as a parent. I don’t know why he believed you were likely to change your mind, nor do I know what he said or did to give the impression that he didn’t care about having children. That’s probably worth discussion, even if it means more crying in the short term. But kicking this can another five years down the road won’t spare you tears or heartache. It’s a hard decision, and there’s no avoiding it. But you two have to make it together, and arrive at it honestly.
Q. My husband is a lousy employee, and I’m his boss: My husband and I started our own company in a creative field about three years ago. He was having trouble holding down a traditional job, and I wasn’t enjoying mine, so we decided to make the most of his creative talents and my administrative skills.
Now I understand why he had trouble in his previous jobs. He blows off deadlines, resents clients (and cannot be trusted to speak to them directly), and complains bitterly and endlessly about the natural constraints of our job. I’m functionally the manager of our company, and it falls to me to make sure everything actually happens the way it’s supposed to. He regularly gets upset with me when I enforce the planning and deliverables that are outlined in our contracts, and when I schedule “too much” work for us despite our workload being pretty normal. He’s very sweet outside of work, and I love him when we’re just hanging out together. We actually perform our day-to-day work tasks seamlessly as a team; it’s the management that we fundamentally disagree on. I’m at my wits’ end and am seriously considering saying that I want out. I know I could find another job, but I’m not sure he can, honestly.
But quitting our business becomes a question of what happens to our marriage. Do I really want to stay married to someone who I don’t think can be an equal partner to me in work, finances, buying a home, or having children? I truly don’t know how he would be able to provide for himself on his own. I absolutely love the work we do; it’s my dream job. I can’t do it without him, and he can’t go on without me. I feel so stuck, and I don’t know what to do. We argue about this every few months like clockwork, and nothing really changes even though he always admits he could do better. My ideal situation would be to stay married and to keep working in this field, but with him just accepting that we really do need to work 40–50 hours a week and that it won’t always be super fun and immediately rewarding.
A: Your ideal situation does not presently exist. It also seems unlikely that it’s going to exist anytime soon, because your husband has never been able to bring himself to accept that his work requires a weekly 40-to-50-hour commitment, that he has to speak politely to clients if he wants to keep their business, or even the general nature of the industry he works in. So it is with a great deal of affection and compassion for you that I say: Let the dream of your “ideal situation” die on the table right now. Nor do I think that you can keep your present situation going indefinitely. It’s only been three years, and you’re already at your wits’ end; what will it be like if five years from now you’re still your husband’s boss, and he still resents you for reminding him of the terms of the contracts he’s already signed? At a certain point it just doesn’t matter how “seamlessly” your day-to-day work goes. The rest of your job sounds absolutely unbearable, and you’re quite right to worry about how your husband might handle the responsibilities of parenthood on the basis of what you’ve seen from him at work.
Stop acting as if being your husband’s full-time mentor/boss/babysitter/assistant is a viable lifelong strategy, because it isn’t; you’ll eventually get exhausted and frustrated and quit. I don’t think a “dream job” has ever involved having to plead with, cajole, or coax your only employee (who happens to be your spouse) into doing their job; getting into regular fights about the contracts you’ve signed together; or talking to every single client on your own because your only co-worker is incapable of having a civil conversation with any of them. What might you have the time and energy for if your husband accepted that you “really do need to work 40–50 hours a week” and that work isn’t always “super fun and immediately rewarding”? What would you prioritize or what kind of career moves would you consider if you relinquished the delusion that you are just this close to convincing him? What if you did not make his employability your responsibility? What if you put the same attention and care toward your own career that you’ve been putting toward trying to keep his career from foundering?
I realize you two have been in business together for years and that you currently depend on this income; I’m not suggesting you tell him you quit tomorrow and then immediately abandon your existing projects. But having the same fight every few months doesn’t change anything, so quit waiting on your husband to change. You say that you want out, and that you think you could easily find another job; I think it’s just that simple, and you should do exactly that. Figure out a manageable timeline for wrapping up your old projects and start applying for jobs elsewhere.
Q. Want to help: My partner of one year is depressed, and I’m at the end of my rope. They are underemployed (hours were cut due to COVID) and have taken on gig work to make ends meet, but the ends just aren’t meeting—they have less than $100 in their bank account most of the time and cannot pay their bills. They don’t have the energy to do more gig work or look for a full-time job; instead, they spend most of their time sleeping, and their waking hours are taken up with video games, D&D, and other unlucrative pursuits.
I love them and recognize that they are a person in crisis, but this makes me incredibly nervous for our future. At this point, I’m not sure if they’re emotionally capable of loving me the way I love them. They don’t want therapy, and I am not sure if they will be open to medication even if they eventually get health care, so there’s a chance they’ll just … be like this. Despite my best efforts, I am beginning to resent the massive amount of energy that I put into supporting them emotionally, encouraging them to actually go out and work so they aren’t deep in debt, and trying to plan ways we can spend time together that don’t cost them any money or require much effort (I want us to spend at least a few hours a week together to keep our relationship going, especially because they live with a family member who is uncomfortable with visitors and we may be quarantining separately if COVID gets worse).
Even when I have done my best to make spending time with me easy, they often cancel and say they are unable to get out of bed. I struggle with my own mental health issues and understand their struggle (not to mention the stress of poverty) but am starting to feel neglected, even though I recognize that this has nothing to do with me. I love them. I see flashes of the person that I want to build a life with, but it’s getting harder to commit to someone who is unable to show they care for me. How can I best support them? Do I need to get out now before I will be truly devastated by losing a future with them? I want to help them, but I also need to protect myself.
A: You’ve only been dating this person for one year, and here’s how you describe your relationship: “I’m not sure if they’re capable of loving me the way I love them. … I resent the massive amount of energy I put into supporting them … trying to plan ways to keep our relationship going. … When I have done my best, they often cancel. … I see flashes of the person I want to build a life with, but they’re unable to show they care for me.” Just a few sentences after describing how exhausted and isolated you feel pouring all your energy into supporting your partner, you ask me “How can I best support them?” as if the problem you two were facing was merely that you weren’t trying hard enough or giving them enough. But it’s not a question of being more supportive. It’s a question of whether you see a happy, equitable, exciting future ahead for the two of you. You’re as much a part of this relationship as your partner is, and your happiness is of equal importance. You’ve done a lot to meet your partner halfway—more than halfway—and you’re pretty cleareyed about taking their straitened circumstances into consideration when it comes to reciprocity; you’re not demanding they get a great job in finance tomorrow or overwhelm you with a burst of spontaneous energy.
I do think this particular relationship seems finished, but you may run into similar patterns in the future. If I could impress upon you one thing, it would be this: Deciding to break up with someone is a question of mutual compatibility, not a question of whether they’re a good person or ought to receive help for their problems or deserve health care. Your partner’s struggles may be very real, they may absolutely need and deserve better mental health treatment than what they’re currently receiving, and that has nothing to do with whether you want to keep dating. Try not to think of this as an either-or situation where you either A) stay and continue to apply your shoulder to the wheel, and single-handedly manage your partner’s life for them no matter how much it exhausts you, or B) “get out” for the sake of your own well-being. Such an approach to dating means that as long as you’re with someone, it’s incumbent upon you to pull out all the stops when they’re in any sort of crisis—until you hit a breaking point, at which point you have no choice but to leave them to preserve your own well-being. That sort of approach to dating makes it so that the only time you feel able to say no to a partner’s request (even, crucially, requests that are merely implied, and not ones your partner has actually made of you) is when you’re breaking up with them.
Q. Puppy not welcome: My husband and I have lived in a condominium complex for more than 20 years. We are quiet and respectful, pay our condominium fee on time, and keep up our mortgage and property. We also have a homeowners insurance policy and otherwise try our best to follow all rules and regulations. Our daughter was brought up here and now lives in another part of the state, close enough to visit once every one to two months. She and her spouse adopted an adorable terrier puppy, who is sweet, friendly, and seems to love people. They always pick up after the dog, keep her leashed, recently had her spayed, etc.
About a month ago, they came for a visit and stayed two nights with the puppy. Within a week, we received a notice from management to remind all residents that dogs are not allowed to visit the property, EVER. During their visit, my daughter and son-in-law took their dog out to the back of our unit at 2 a.m. to make sure she didn’t have an accident during the night. One of the neighbors observed them, and my daughter told me how weird it was to see this person doing their laundry in the middle of the night (supposedly, this is against the rules and residents are supposed to observe quiet time between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. There are signs specifically asking us not to do laundry during these hours). She also noticed the woman was not friendly and pointedly watched them with the dog. I find myself feeling furious, knowing that they carefully pick up after the dog with bags they have ready at all times.
There is a neighbor with special permission to have their “emotional support” animal (a dog that frequently and annoyingly barks). Do I take this further with management? Insist to have special permission? I find myself getting annoyed about it and really angry at this nosy neighbor as well as the feeling that we are being singled out. Our dog visitor never barked or bothered anyone (we kept her very close and leashed, she did not run up to anyone or otherwise cause any problems during the visit).
A: You have a neighbor who slightly annoys you! If I believed that anything like peace or happiness lay on the other side of meticulously documenting her own infractions, like using a dryer after formal laundry hours are over, I’d tell you, but I really, really don’t believe anything of the kind lies in that direction. Your daughter’s dog sounds great! But you also knew the complex rules don’t allow visits from dogs, so I don’t think you should work yourself up listing all the ways in which this dog is extra special. It’s kind of annoying that your neighbor didn’t speak to you directly, but all that’s happened is that you’ve received a bland reminder from your management company. She doesn’t have the power to hurt you, so don’t expend too much energy on resenting her.
If you want to email your management company and ask for future dispensation on overnight visits from a particular dog, I think that’s fine, and there’s a decent chance they’ll hear you out. But if they say no, they say no, and your daughter will either have to find a dogsitter on future visits or book a room at a pet-friendly hotel.
Q. My awful mother texts me every day in quarantine: My mom divorced my father when I was young and raised me alone for a few years before remarrying and starting a new family. I’ve always received different (worse) treatment than my half siblings from my mom. Friends and boyfriends have remarked for years on how she treats me—she ignores me or attributes my words to my husband, insults my appearance, and questions my life choices whenever I see her. I’ve kept my distance but maintain a veneer of politeness.
When the pandemic hit, she started texting me every day to “check in”—but in practice she uses it as a chance to vent. Open questions like “How are you doing?” have given way to questions with room for only blandly cheerful responses, like “What are you grateful for today?” If I reply to her with something positive, she second-guesses me. If I reply with something negative or complicated, she ignores it and talks about what’s on her mind. I’ve taken to answering with short, ambivalent replies to give her very little room to maneuver.
The thing is, I’m having a terrible time in quarantine and really do need someone to talk to! My husband has been tweaking his depression medication and has been having frequent panic attacks, and a lot of my coping mechanisms feel very far away right now. When I check my phone in the morning and see her text, it feels like my day is off on a bad foot before it’s even started. I’d like to ask her to stop pretending to care how I’m doing while making me help her process her quarantine feelings, but I’m worried it will blow up and exhaust me even more. What do I do?
A: If I thought there was any chance your mother could be guided or pushed into being the sort of person you could talk to when you’re going through a hard time, I’d do my best to advise you on how to do so, but she seems to be remarkably consistent and implacable in how she treats you. I think the best you can hope for in your relationship is to minimize how much time and energy you spend on her. That may sound bleak, but I think it’s a good foundation for hopefulness. You can find kind people to vent to, develop new coping strategies, reground your relationship with your husband, restructure your relationship to your phone, and gain valuable insights into your patterns with your mother, all without looking to her for support or guidance. If that means setting her texts to “Do Not Disturb” and ignoring 80 percent of them, do that; if that means spending 30 seconds each morning telling her something bland, repetitive, and formulaic so as to give her no conversational purchase to keep going, do that. If that means saying, “I don’t have the energy for these conversations. I’ll let you know when I’m free to talk,” and ignoring whatever her response may be so you can go do something genuinely relaxing and meaningful, then do that. (My vote’s for No. 3.)
In the long run, I hope you can find ways to disconnect the idea that if your mother blows up at you, you therefore have to exhaust yourself trying to placate her. I realize it’s not a change that can be made overnight, and that no matter how relentlessly and reliably she tears you down, part of you might always wish that your mother will finally say something kind, loving, and nurturing to you. But I think whatever you do next, you should behave as if you knew without a doubt that your mother’s response is going to be unreasonable, unloving, demanding, and critical. Painful as that assumption may be, I think it will free you up to pursue what’s best for you, rather than try to tiptoe around her in the hopes you can avoid something that sounds fairly unavoidable.
Q. Re: Child-free in Albuquerque: I just want to respectfully point out that the response “Well, I don’t really want a child, but if it means losing you otherwise, I’m willing to have a child” is not necessarily always the worst response or a reason to question the person’s fitness as a parent. My partner already had a child from a previous marriage, and his preference was to be done. I did not have any children, and I was making some rather large sacrifices by staying in a location that was better for his career. We discussed it for a long time—more than two years—and eventually decided to have children, even though he was not super enthusiastic about going through the baby phase again! And for what it’s worth, our now-18-month-old has totally melted his dad’s heart!
I know this is a different situation and this writer adamantly doesn’t want children. I just want to point out that there is room for nuance, even in such a fraught decision as children, and sometimes it is OK to make compromises. I think there are a good fraction of couples who are not exactly equally on board about children but still find a way to be good parents.
A. That may very well be true! And of course, most people who decide to become parents don’t do so because they believe every minute of the endeavor is going to be a laugh riot; many experience moments of uncertainty, trepidation, terror, resentment, fear, etc. Unalloyed optimism and total, unswerving enthusiasm is not a necessary requirement for being a good parent. But I also think too often people are inclined to gamble, or swallow important reservations, on the strength of sentiments like “You’ll just fall in love right away when the baby gets here.” What’s most interesting here, I think, is why this letter that you acknowledge is very unlike your own situation activated some of your fears. It sounds like you and your partner discussed the possibility of children carefully and without applying undue emotional pressure for several years, that you both knew the various risks and rewards, that neither of you lacked information about how difficult raising a newborn can be, and that both of you felt free to leave the relationship if meaningful compromise proved impossible. I don’t think you have to worry that your partner was secretly in this letter writer’s camp and forced himself to adopt an outlook against his own best interests merely because he was afraid of losing you. There’s a world of difference between “I’m not sure, but this relationship is deeply important to me. Let’s keep talking” and “I really don’t want children, and the idea of having to raise a child by myself if anything happened to our relationship devastates me, but maybe we should keep dating for five more years just in case I’m wrong.”
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
From How to Do It
Q. Sex with my ex was incredible, and I can’t find anyone as good: My ex and I recently broke up. It was a very intense but short-lived relationship. Our sex life was out of this world. I’ve been putting myself out there again and have had a few sexual experiences, some better than others. The problem is, I had some of the best sex of my life with my ex, and all I can think about when having sex with literally anyone else is my ex. Everyone else pales in comparison. I’m scared that if I can’t have anything even close to a similar sexual compatibility, I’ll always feel like something is lacking. I had a horrible sex life with my husband of more than a decade, and I’m just not willing to go back to that. What should I do? Read what Stoya and Rich had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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