How to handle unpleasant and unsolicited parenting advice?

Dear Gentle Butch,

What is the correct response to strangers telling me to put a hat/coat/socks/shoes/etc on my baby who is comfortable, happy, and not cold?

— The Baby’s Mom

 

Dear TBM,

The correct response is, and it is perfectly gentle: “Go fuck yourself.”

I’m being gentle on you, not on them, obviously. It is good advice because it will succeed in your goal: getting those smug motherfuckers the hell away from you as fast as is humanly possible.

They are not only lobbing unsolicited advice at you; they are insinuating that you are a neglectful parent and don’t know how to dress your own damn child. That you are a silly little girl (or boy; I hear fathers out with their babies get this even worse) who simply has no idea what on earth she is doing.

They are walking up to you and saying the rudest thing they can possibly come up with, but pretending it’s aaaallll good. Bullies; cowards. They need to be shut down.

If your mouth is not a combination of an ad executive and a longshoreman like mine is, Miss Manners (who is, by definition, infallible) suggests the following response to all hostile demands like this.

You say, in the frostiest voice possible: “How kind you are to take such an interest in my business.”

And this part is my addition: then turn away and do not say another single word to them.

When we are new parents, we are constantly anxious about all sorts of stuff like if we’re feeding the right food or if the kid is too warm or too hot or breathing funny or whatever, and for strangers to come up and lord it over you that they are, unlike you, apparently clairvoyant and all-knowing, hits a certain pain spot.

Have you found yourself fighting the urge to discuss it with them? To defend your choices? To explain that your baby is not cold, or doesn’t like shoes, or whatever the fuck?

DON’T.

Just one of the two above phrases, and then no response to anything else they say WHATSOEVER.

nothing.

PS fuck them seriously omg

So now we can’t even say hi to a service dog?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I know we aren’t supposed to touch service dogs, but we can look at them, right? What if the dog approaches us first?

I was walking toward a woman with a service dog on the sidewalk, and her dog was so incredibly cute! It was a beautiful shiny black Lab bursting with Lab cuteness, with floppy soft ears and a big doggie smile.

I love dogs. I didn’t say anything at all, but as we got closer I did look at the dog, smile, and give it a little wave. He wagged his tail.

As I passed, the dog’s tail got faster, it raised its head, and sniffed at my knuckles. I paused and turned my hand around for him, and he gave it a little kiss as he went by.

I would never have touched a service dog that hadn’t sniffed me, and I didn’t even really touch him as it was!

The woman yanked the dog closer to her and snarled at me: “Interfering with a service dog is against the law!” And kept wheeling down the street away from me.

I didn’t even make her and the dog slow down on their way.

I know I shouldn’t touch them, and I didn’t! But I feel really bad. She was just so angry! I don’t think I did anything wrong, and I don’t see why she had to be so mean about it. 

What do you think?

— I Love Dogs

 

Dear ILD,

Listen. I get it. I really do. I am also a dog lover, and human beings evolved next to dogs. Our species are inextricably linked, and when you’re a dog person it’s nearly impossible to reject a doggie overture.

Studies show that dogs in the workplace lower stress levels, and they make obnoxious teens and stoic butches alike coo and make baby talk and kissy noises. Their fur begs to be pet and their noses beg to be kissed. And dogs — especially Labs — love attention from people.

That’s where things get sticky with service animals.

My service dog loves people — especially children. And other dogs. If I allowed it, he would spend his days as a social butterfly distributing kisses and soliciting treats rather than supporting me.

And that’s the thing: service dogs have a job to do. And when they are distracted or when they are hoping for and expecting attention from others, that’s when things can get dangerous for their disabled handlers.

You say that the dog initiated with you, and that you didn’t slow them down or touch him.

But you actually initiated with the dog. Making eye contact and waving is very appealing to friendly dogs.

And if you were close enough for the dog to sniff the back of your hand? You were too close.

Service dogs need space to work. Walking close enough to one for him to sniff you, even if you hadn’t gotten his attention first, is very distracting.

Think about it: if every person (or even every tenth person) who walked past that woman and her dog waved and interacted with her dog, the dog would stop paying attention to his handler and start looking around and maybe even lunging toward people for attention, play, etc.

My dog once lunged when I was in my wheelchair, and I ended up in a heap on the sidewalk.

It’s dangerous for the dog, too — a man once made kissy noises at my dog, he looked at that damn kissy man instead of where he was going, and I rolled over his toes.

So: next time you see someone with a service dog, even if you’re on a crowded sidewalk or in a narrow hallway, avoid eye contact with the dog and give them a wide berth by either walking out toward the curb or even stepping aside for them to pass.

I think many people make the mistaken assumption that service dogs are so perfectly trained that they are basically robots; if the dog shouldn’t sniff, he shouldn’t sniff no matter what.

But dogs are dogs, and no training is perfect, and when people walk by offering attention over and over, it erodes the training the dog has gone through.

I know it hurts. Like, I mean, if you love dogs it can sometimes actually feel like a physical pain to refrain from at least even saying hi.

But don’t do it. Just don’t. It is dangerous for the handler and for the dog.

Now: you are wondering why the handler was so angry.

I confess, although my name is Gentle, that reading this letter angered me, too — even as I understood how easy it is to make a mistake like you did.

See, disabled people, like any marginalized group, deal with microaggressions every day — be it people TALKING VERY SLOWLY IN THEIR SPECIAL VOICE, grabbing our wheelchairs, asking why we ‘need those sticks,’ or stealing the parking spaces set aside for us so that we have enough room to enter and exit with our equipment.

So I am nearly certain that you were not the first person who interfered with her dog that week, and probably not even the first to interfere that day — and after a certain point, all of us just snap.

The type of behavior you describe is really, really distracting to the dog and it’s incredibly enraging to a handler, no matter how well-meaning you were. That’s why the handler got so angry. It’s as simple as that.

I know it stings to have a stranger rage at you in public, and I also know that not a lot of people get good information on how to deal with service dogs in public except for ‘don’t touch.’

But now you know for next time, and hopefully by writing in, other people now know, too.

How do I deal with other people’s resentment?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I’m a woman in my mid-50’s, and through great privilege and luck I’m able to support myself by working as a writing/editing/website contractor just a few months per year, and go on some great trips, too. I call myself semi-retired. Due to bipolar and some physical limitations, it’s hard for me to work full-time for more than a few weeks, anyway.  (But I’m not able to get disability benefits.)

I know my roommate resents it; she’s said as much. She’s 62 and will retire at 70 at best.  I’ll be moving soon — it was a short-term thing so I could save for travel and she could catch up on her mortgage — but I feel it from other people, too. I don’t brag about my situation, but I don’t want to fake a job or  volunteer more than I want to just so other people feel better. Someday I’d like to find a new partner, too, and I think that will be hard(er), because so many guys are still ambitious at my age, and/or would also feel resentful.

And yes, I do spend a lot of my extra free time second-guessing and worrying about how other people feel.

– Lucky but Guilty

 

Dear LBG,

Oh, wow.

This letter reminds me of how people will say shit to me like: “I wish _I_ could get parking right near the door; or “I wish _I_ could take my dog everywhere with me!”

They imagine how great my life is with my rockstar parking and my mutt always by my side, and think it’s unfair that they don’t get those things. It doesn’t occur to them for even twenty seconds that the reason I NEED the damn parking and service dog is because each of my days is more difficult than each of their weeks.

I am incredibly glad that you have been able to support yourself and even go on trips working part-time contract. That must mean, as you say, that you’ve had the privilege and luck of being able to save for retirement, which so many of us just can’t do living paycheck-to-paycheck and/or just not having the option.

Own your privilege! Great! You know that being able to save for retirement is a privilege that you had.

But don’t paint yourself as an heiress, either.

If you don’t qualify for disability, you are probably paying a shit ton for health insurance since you’re in your mid-50s.

I’m guessing you’re pretty good at living on not too much money. I mean, you moved in with a friend to save up for a trip. That’s frugal as fuck.

Your lifestyle doesn’t seem particularly swank. I don’t know what your physical limitations are, but it sounds like you are both mentally ill and physically disabled, and you can’t work full time for more than a few weeks without it taking an incredible toll on you. Sounds like and you’re making the best of your situation.

I’m sorry your roommate resents someone who has been helping her pay her mortgage. I’m sorry she won’t retire until she’s 70. (I will never retire, and I don’t hold it against someone who will be able to retire at 70.)

But I think if she looks at a very frugal person dealing with multiple disabilities who has been able to call her situation ‘semi-retirement’ and then resents her for it, that says a lot more about her than it does about you.

Now. What do you mean by you “feel it from other people, too?”

Do you mean that other people make passive-aggressive remarks like “must be nice” or whatever other dumb-ass shit resentful people say to make other folks feel bad?

Or do you mean that your roommate’s resentment has made you a paranoid — so paranoid that you seem to have actually considered pretending to work more than you do — and you’re extending that attitude to other people?

Only you know, of course, whether this is real stuff or anxious projection on your part. Either way, I think the reaction is the same — don’t let yourself get baited.

I legit don’t know what to say about men. I mean, don’t you think middle-aged women who are attracted to men have all twisted themselves into pretzels enough to try to fit whatever it is that they think “men want?” Fuck it. Enough. Don’t.

Would you really want to be with someone who found partnering with a woman who is semi-retired some sort of disqualifying event?

Perhaps you can think of this situation as an Asshole Detector. Anyone who responds to “Hi; I’m semi-retired” with “ew get away” just isn’t relationship or friendship material.

Is it okay to ask my upstairs neighbors to take down old decorations that are a fire hazard?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I live in a duplex and the upstairs neighbor had a new roommate move in a few months back. She’s apparently told my husband that she likes to “celebrate all the holidays at once!” which sounds whimsical and charming until the rotting pumpkins… now those were finally disposed of, but there are still wispy cottony cobwebs mingling with dried-out, brown boughs of evergreen going up the railing on their outdoor stairs (in the front of the house) to the wooden eaves/ their wood doorway. We live on a busy street and people walking by often toss paper garbage and cigarette butts into our yard.  So it’s not only an eyesore, but also a fire hazard.

The wooden house is over a hundred years old, probably poorly wired, definitely poorly maintained, and I live in California where every year areas around us burn and we can’t breathe properly for weeks. I’m totally paranoid about the fire risks, but I also know my neighbors annoy me more than is perhaps kind (they’re loud and party a lot, but I only complain to my friends, not to the neighbors, because I understand that living in a city means hearing other people’s lives up close). 

Is it unreasonable to send the following to them? If they refuse to take them down, do I mention it to the landlord? I really don’t want to start a war, and would like to get along, but I have an anxiety disorder and hate the worrying.

“Just wanted to know if y’all wanted some help taking down the old holiday decorations? I’m getting very paranoid about the fire hazard of brittle dried branches and wispy cobwebs leading up to our very old, non-fireproof house? It’s also a bit of an eyesore now that the branches are all brown…”

Thanks in advance!

Paranoid About Burning Down

 

Dear PABD,

First, sorry/not sorry for the image that I’ve chosen for this letter. I know you have anxiety. But I wanted to help you keep laser focus on what is at stake here: YOUR HOME BURNING TO THE GROUND.

As I read this, until I saw the part about your anxiety disorder, I found myself wondering: why is this letter writer concerned with whether or not she pisses off her neighbors who clearly give no fucks about whether or not they are pissing HER off?

They party loudly. They leave out rotting gourds. They have festooned the front of the duplex with not only cotton but also dry evergreen.

You want to know my favorite way to start a fire when I’m camping? Dry evergreen. It’s the best fire starter there is because dry evergreen is FILLED WITH EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE SAP.

It goes up like, well, a Christmas tree.

Are you in counseling for your anxiety disorder? Because if not, I think you should be. You seem to be attributing your very reasonable fear of fire to your ‘paranoia’ and your dislike of the neighbors instead of the fact that they appear intent on actually burning down your house. A good therapist would, I think, help you to understand your anxiety and self doubt while also trusting your own instincts about cut-and-dry (very very very dry) situations like this.

I am not trying to yell at you or shame you; one of the symptoms of anxiety is second-guessing your every move and suspecting yourself of having bad motivations (like disliking the neighbors for other reasons). But blaming your own mental health issues for other people’s extremely dangerous and thoughtless actions is something that right now is literally putting your home and life in danger, because you have hesitated to even bring this up with anyone.

Before you go get therapized, though, for the love of all that is holy and unholy call your landlord immediately and tell them about the horrible fire hazard your neighbors have created.

(Say nothing about it being an ‘eyesore;’ neohippies who think they are whimsical and adorable for basically leaving a bunch of crap all over the place are going to fixate on the ‘eyesore’ bit to the exclusion of safety. That’s the sort of wording that might cause them to feel warlike and self-righteous about this, and the sort of wording a lazy landlord might also use to dismiss your concerns and take no action.)

Your landlord is responsible for the safety of the building. Skip the middleman, especially if you have anxiety and struggle with conflict. This is not only a fire hazard, but also a huge liability issue for them. Call the landlord, and if they don’t respond quickly enough, the fire marshall.

This is serious. This is not your ‘paranoia.’ You are absolutely 100% right about this.

I know I’m asking you to do something that will really ramp up your anxiety, by the way. We the anxious feel that sticking up for ourselves is somehow a bad and dangerous thing to do.

But in this case, the opposite is true. Pop a Zanax, some weed (at least 800 feet from your building FFS) or have a drink; take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and call. It will feel absolutely horrible. But you feel absolutely horrible with this fire hazard hanging literally over your head already, and in the long run this will help.

One anxious person to another: I believe in you! You can do the thing!

Now do it. Maybe even before you finish reading this letter.

Her fiancé’s oversharing gets under her skin.

Dear Gentle Butch,

I am the luckiest woman, engaged to a sweet, soft butch (my term, not hers) who loves me as much as I love her. One of the things that I love most about her is how she loves so many friends and family and builds deep, emotional relationships.

On the other hand, I open my heart to her, my kid, and just a few others.

My fiancee is willing to share just about anything about herself whereas I’m very strategic about what I share and who I share this with, too — erring on the side of caution.

Unfortunately, she shares things that are too private about me, too. And the way she represents me isn’t always right, either. For example, she told a friend that I don’t care for someone in the queer community — and although I’ve heard a bit of crap about her, I don’t personally know her, and I am publicly neutral about everyone unless they are abusers.

I think there’s a fine line between being able to process things about me with friends and making representations of me. She doesn’t get this because she’s just sharing things with people she loves.

Our relationship is based on love, trust, and consent. I know I will need to go out of my comfort zone, too. I’d appreciate strategies and vocabulary to help us get on the same page.

Dyke Disclosure Overexposure

Dear DDO,

I’m going to level with you: I’m the ‘open book-connector-person,’ and OH did I have things to learn.

It takes screwing up a few times to get it right, I think. It’s probably unavoidable.

But telling a friend that you don’t care for someone in the community, regardless of whether she misrepresented you, feels like it crossed the line from processing into gossip. That’s a fairly big screw up.

Has it affected your trust? Has it made you feel a little unsafe? Do you sometimes find yourself dreading what you will hear next?

If so, then tell her. Let her know exactly how you feel when she exposes you like this.

You say she loves lots of people and forms deep relationships. That must mean she is very empathetic, and cares about feelings and a sense of connection.

So one really important thing your fianceé needs to know is exactly how much pain this causes, and how her revealing things erodes at your trust. The very thing she fosters closeness and builds trust with in her relationships with others has the potential to harm your closeness and your relationship.

So what I would suggest is being very clear about those boundaries so she knows where not to overstep, give her categories of information you want held back.

It may be very obvious to you that she shouldn’t talk about, say, your sex life or your family of origin’s alcoholic tendencies. Not to mention whom you care or don’t care for in the community.

But it will not be obvious to her.

Talk to her. Share with her the impact these disclosures have on you emotionally. Give her clear guidelines.

And give her a release valve. People who think-through-talking-and-connecting need at least one friend they can really open up with: to complain about how you keep forgetting to unload the dishwasher but also to work through thornier issues, which may involve revealing some of your sore spots.

But she needs to ensure that it is only one or, at the most, two people she shares with this way, and that they understand this is just between them.

It may sound like I’m coming down a little hard on her, and I really do understand how confusing and even frustrating it can be to hold back when you’re a talker.

But she’s the one who needs to do most of the transforming here. Respecting a partner’s boundaries should supercede nearly all other considerations.

Your job is to be extremely clear about what you need to feel safe — and to be as forgiving as you can when she invariably messes up in the process of figuring it all out.

Is this couple childish, sullen, petty, and very immature for having feelings?

Dear Gentle Butch,

A few years ago, my husband and I introduced two of our best friends (a couple) to another pair of our best friends (our cousins). All of these friends are about ten years younger than us, and run in somewhat different circles.

Now, these two couples we love often hang out together without us, post fun photos on social media of adventures we weren’t invited to join, and sometimes even of family events they were invited to but we were not.

We want to be mature and grounded, gratified at the joy they bring each other, happy our loved ones have more love in their lives. Instead, we are ridiculously jealous and hurt over this, wondering if we are unlikable or less fun or just too old to be cool, and we feel childish, sullen, petty, and very immature for feeling this way.

(Note: Neither couple is intentionally rubbing it in our faces, we always hear about this through another person, such as another mutual friend at a gathering.)

Why can’t we be happy for the joy new friendships brought our friends? How can we get over our insecure jealousy and get into a healthy headspace on this?

Best,

Left Out

 

Dear LO,

So, let me sum this up: you introduced some of your favorite people in the world to each other. They now spend more time with each other than they do with you, and don’t invite you along on their adventures. People are holding family events and inviting your cousins but not you.

And you get to see it all on social media, or hear about it from friends because they aren’t telling you about their get-togethers.

And you dare to have hurt feelings about this.

Yep. You sure are a couple of childish, sullen, petty, and very immature people. Also old, uncool, unlikeable, and no fun. CLEARLY.

Everything you are describing here is objectively painful, and feeling jealous, left out, and hurt are the feelings that are natural to feel in this situation. Do you think that grownups can’t have feelings? You’re an adult, not the Buddha.

Don’t pressure yourself to be all good and giving about this, because OWTCH.

I’m guessing that these feelings and lack of benevolent joy are so incredibly intense because this is triggering childhood misery.

That’s why you are using all of this ‘child’ language to yell at yourselves.

We all have intense and painful memories of feeling left out — everyone, at some point in their lives. These might even be some of your earliest memories. And when you are being left out (and you are most definitely being left out), our bodies remember what it felt like — and push us right back to that childhood place in our lizard-brains: the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that connects you to your past by aligning current happenings to old memories. It’s also the part that offers us fear, anger— and the fight, flight, or freeze reflexes. Right back there? That’s our REAL gut.

And the jealousy and hurt feelings you feel in that gut are so powerful you’re shocked by yourselves, because they come from way deep down inside.

But there is a reason, and it is not your fault. This does not mean you are bad people. This means you are people with feelings and pasts and stuff.

So, please. Allow yourselves to feel these deep, connected-to-childhood feelings, and stop calling yourselves names. Take some time with it.

I mean it– remembering and talking about the specific memories these emotions tie back to can help them to have less power over you.

When you’re done, if you still like your friends (and I hope you do; their crime seems to be thoughtlessness rather than malice), turn the script around: include THEM in YOUR plans.

Take a deep breath, or seven, and invite them to dinner.

How do I support my awful coworker’s daughter?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I work in a small office of only a few people. My least-favorite coworker (I’ll call her Susan) has a teenage daughter (Hannah), who is queer, but is not out to her family. (It’s complicated how I came to know this.) And, while I have met Hannah a few times, we don’t have a close relationship. My coworker frequently laments her daughter’s rejection of boys (chalking it up to immaturity) and tells us her plans for “socializing” her daughter (with or without her consent). Hannah is involved in drama club at school, which seems pretty social to me, but Susan is dismissive, saying Hannah is too introverted to be good at it (which is not necessarily true).

Most recently, Susan told us about Hannah bringing a boy home. Susan was glad that Hannah is making friends with boys, but disappointed that her interest in him is only friendly. On top of that, her husband freaked out and went full-on patriarchal. He insisted on meeting the boy first to see if he “looked scary,” imposing time limits on visits, making sure she keeps her door open, etc. Susan told this in a smiling dads-will-be-dads kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to laugh or what, but it was all I could do to contain my horror.

Susan always sounds exasperated when she mentions her daughter. I hate to hear Susan sound so down on her daughter all the time and I am never sure how to react. I don’t want to accidentally out Hannah, or make it sound like I’m telling Susan how to raise her children. But they way she talks about her daughter, queer or not, is appalling to me.

I should mention that I am also queer and quite out about it. My wife and I have casually offered to spend time with Hannah after she and my wife bonded a little bit over a shared enthusiasm for YA fiction. Hannah is very shy about reaching out and when we have made tentative plans, Susan tends to make it inconvenient so that Hannah cancels. We have not persisted, afraid it will look like “recruitment.”

I really want to be an ally to this girl, but I don’t like her mother at all. How should I respond to my coworker’s stories and comments about her daughter? Do you think we should try contacting Hannah again?

–Coworker Didn’t Get the Memo

What a heartbreaking letter.

It’s so incredibly hard to watch a parent pull this crap when you are helpless to intervene.

Well, mostly helpless.

I think you have done what you can with Hannah. You have made it clear you’d be willing to hang out. Her mother has made it clear that she is going to passively resist this as much as possible, but Hannah will eventually have more mobility and freedom. I imagine she will learn to drive or take public transportation, for instance. If her father allows it. (I HOPE I am joking about that.)

I assume Hannah knows you are a couple. She knows who to turn to if she needs to, when the time comes. And that is so, so important.

Now, the next stuff I’m going to say is fully optional. You are hereby cleared by me, as a queer and a parent of a queer, from any other responsibility. You can back away quickly when she talks about her daughter. You can change the subject or put your fingers in your ears and hum. She sounds like a very irritating person, on top of everything else.

But.

As a parent, I’m feeling like I need to at least give this damn lady a sliver of the benefit of the doubt.

To be clear: I think she is just a thoughtless parent who believes its her job to control her kid’s life and that there is only one way to be happy and she knows what it is, so she’s going to try to force her daughter into the shape she thinks is best.

Oh and that she thinks her husband believing that he owns his daughter’s sexuality and body is funny.

But.

On the off chance she is sharing this with people because it was a bit unsettling to her and she wants to see a reaction to gauge how weird some of this is, responding naturally might be just what she needs.

And she might be deeply frustrated with her daughter’s refusal to fit into the shape she’s trying to jam her into, and talking a little might help her see how ridiculous she is being.

You don’t have much to lose — she is already passively-aggressively keeping you from her daughter, so it’s not like you have a connection to her that will be in jeopardy.

So there are two ways to go, and this probably depends on how comfortable you are with confrontation.

One: I think she needs to see that some people are horrified by her husband’s behavior. I think she needs to see you recoil and say something like: “Actually, some of the best actors are introverts.” I think she needs to see you narrow your eyes over her bemoaning over her daughter not having a boyfriend already and looking skeptical. And if you can have a natural, honest reaction to what she says without telling her off, you will probably empower others around you to do the same.

Two: you can be empathetic. Or mime it. When she starts talking about her daughter in that antagonistic tone, you can say in a warm and kind tone: “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with her.” If she is, and wants to talk, she can — and increased intimacy might give you a chance to offer her other insights. If she isn’t, and hadn’t realized she’d taken on this tone — well, that’s information for her, as well.

I get it. I want to save all the queerbabies with parents like this (and worse, of course), too. But you have truly done what you can right now for the girl, and you’re continuing to be. And for her mom . . . showing her that it’s possible to have a happy life and a stable relationship even if you’re queer might help her to stop frantically attempting to force heterosexuality on Hannah. 

Good luck. And remember it’s always an option to just change the subject or walk away, for your own mental health.

Yet another woman thinks everything’s her fault.

Dear Gentle Butch,

There was a guy, “Joel,” who I had some feelings for and ended up sleeping with once (we were both single at the time).

After that happened, we never actually spoke about it, which was occasionally awkward since we both did a lot of work for the same small organization and had some of the same social circle.

Less than a year later, I was having serious roommate problems that made me feel unsafe at home. I brought up the situation with many people, including Joel. He said that he had been looking for a roommate, and that I could consider that as a possibility. I pursued that, although I sensed he had reservations about the idea, and ended up moving in with Joel and his other roommates.

Joel had recently entered a relationship. I was glad about that, thinking it would be clear boundary. Although I still had some feelings for him, I didn’t want to act on them in any circumstances. We were simply cordial roommates the entire time I lived there.

However, a few months after I had moved in, a friend of mine brought up the subject of Joel’s girlfriend. She was unaware of the fact that Joel and I had slept together. My friend thought it was unethical to live there if the girlfriend was in the dark. She argued that while Joel was the one keeping this information private and I was not responsible for that, I was condoning it by staying, and had created the situation in the first place– Joel’s random sexual history would not be relevant to disclose to his girlfriend, until he was living with a former hookup. I hadn’t considered it in that light and wasn’t sure what to think. After some agonizing, I brought up the subject to Joel, and as I suspected, his girlfriend did not know about our history. I ended up staying at the place a while longer, before leaving just a month or two earlier than I had planned.

So was it morally wrong — or at the least suspect — for me to live there, knowing his girlfriend was unaware of our past? I’ve never been able to really decide. Did Joel’s girlfriend have a right to that information? Was my behavior irrelevant to the entire situation, and the responsibility to act/disclose or not on Joel? Does the issue lie in a different area, in the fact that I did not discuss these issues with Joel before moving in? Or that I suspected Joel had misgivings about me living there, and I ignored that and moved in anyway? I feel that I was in the wrong somewhere, but I have had a hard time putting my finger on it. How can I go about evaluating and coming to a decision about right and wrong in this, or in future dilemmas I might face?

–Rueful Roommate

 

oh my GOD RR staaaaaaaahp.

Stop taking on everyone else’s feelings, real or imagined. Stop being so certain you did something wrong.

I know that our society has taught you that as a woman it is your job to take care of everyone’s feelings and to stay out in front of everything and to read people’s body language and react in ways that are best for them regardless of your needs and to take on everything everything everything, but STOP.

You were not wrong. Anywhere.

Lots of people have a one-night stand and then go back to their lives without ever mentioning it. It’s a little awkward, but lots of people do it. Unless you wanted to talk about it but didn’t because he never brought it up, you did nothing wrong in this instance. And if you did, the person you wronged was yourself.

Moving in with him in a whole house full of roommates wasn’t wrong, either. You were in fear for your safety. That is a seriously awful situation. You needed a place to stay, and you needed it fast, and he had an open room at his place that needed filling. Not wrong.

As far as your ‘sense’ that he had reservations about the idea: he was the one who told you he needed a roommate. He didn’t have to do that. He could have said: ‘bummer if I hear of a place I’ll let you know,’ or simply remained silent — which seems like his style. If he had second thoughts during the process, it was on him to say something. (FWIW, he sounds like an absolutely terrible, selfish communicator and I don’t like him.) It’s not on you to read people’s minds. Many men will do that: say something with their mouths and then use reluctant body language, to try to make you do all the hard emotional work and read between the lines. Fuck that.

Your ‘friend’ laying all of the responsibility for communication at your feet . . .  she’s just plain wrong about so many things.

First, I see no reason why you need to tell someone you slept with her boyfriend, once, a YEAR AGO, because you are one of his many housemates. What would be the purpose? This information says nothing about you, her stupid boyfriend, or her situation in regards to him. One. Time. Around a year ago.

Second, I don’t really see a reason he should tell her, either.

These two facts make all of your friend’s arguments moot, but I just HAD to address this little mindfuck she was doing: blaming you for ‘putting him in the position’ of having to tell his girlfriend about you two by moving in with him.

He knew he had a girlfriend and that you two had fucked a year ago. Knowing this, he invited you to move in.

Imagine believing that a friend of yours who was IN DANGER should have, instead of getting the fuck out of an awful situation in the fastest way possible, bent herself into a zillion pretzels to think about the POSSIBILITY that she might put her male roommate into a position where he might have to OPEN HIS GODDAMNED MOUTH AND SAY SOMETHING.

To recap:

  1. You did nothing wrong.
  2. Your friend was engaging in patriarchal blame-the-woman-ing and protect-the-man-at- all cost-even-when-the-issue-is-imaginary and was full of shit.
  3. I don’t like this guy.

Stick to your guns. Don’t let these assholes push you around. Believe that you are allowed to take care of yourself instead of all of the grownup people around you who should be looking after themselves and interrogating their OWN lives instead of yours.

She is not your friend. She is a sadistic little mindfucker. And he ain’t no prize, either.

Your last question was how to evaluate situations and decide on what is right and what is wrong in the future. You don’t need the answer to that question: you know what is right and wrong, and you acted accordingly.

You just need to believe that you are a smart, capable grownup who knows what to do and when, who has a sense of self preservation and privacy, who perhaps doesn’t need to burden random girlfriends with weird ‘fun facts’ about their boyfriends, and doesn’t need busybodies picking apart your decisions.

I will tell you what I think you might need to look at more closely: perhaps pay more attention to picking better friends and crushes.

Friends should be supportive, not cut you down and accuse you of nebulous and ridiculous ethical crimes. Friends of all types — the ones you’ve hooked up with and the ones you haven’t — should communicate clearly, without any manipulative bullshit. They certainly shouldn’t just skulk around silently expecting you to do all of the emotional work.

So what do I think you should do?

I would start by noticing a few things about people you’re with now: how do they make you feel? Do you feel stupid and second-guess yourself after you were with them for a few hours? Are you anxious around them, never feeling like you’re doing or saying the right thing? Do you feel judged? Do you fear bringing up topics with them because you don’t want to seem uncool or vulnerable and their reactions and the way they talk leave you feeling unbalanced and unsure?

RUN.

How do I break up with my massage therapist?

How do I break up with my massage therapist? I have been seeing a massage therapist for almost a year, and I have recently developed very strong feelings for him.

There is no chance of me pursuing a relationship with him — aside from his professional obligation to not date clients, he is straight and we are both married. But my feelings are causing me enough distress that I need to stop seeing him.

Do I owe him an explanation, or should I just ghost on him? I have a session booked that I set up before realizing I need to stop seeing him, and am not sure what to say when I cancel the appointment. 

— Wondering

 

Dear Wondering,

Right now, your feelings are just in your head. And you need to keep them there.

Clients getting crushes is one of the hazards of bodywork professions. And unless you think he’s done something to cause this over and above just doing his job and being attractive to you, you need to just cancel the appointment. As quickly as possible, so as not to hold up his schedule, of course. By email. Just cancelling. Nothing else.

Offering him an explanation only gives you the chance to confess your very strong feelings, which would really just be for you. Maybe you even have the tiniest eentsyest squeentsiest fleeting fantasy that he will say: “I am in love with you; I’m leaving my wife and I already know your husband is fine with this!”

Or even that you think perhaps he has a secret crush on you, too, and then you can be secretly in love forever even if he never tells you and you can quietly swoon for each other for eternity — or you can imagine he’s doing that.

I’m sorry if I’m being harsh on you. I could be completely off-base on this.

But you did word changing massage therapists as ‘breaking up,’ and you described clinical visits as ‘seeing him for almost a year.’ Sounds like there was a capital R Relationship in your mind already. Our minds do SO MANY DAMN THINGS to tell us what we want to hear.

Whether I’m correct about any secret or subconscious motivations you may or may not have in telling him why you are switching massage therapists, I am correct in one thing: telling him why is going to cause him a lot of discomfort and possibly anguish.

Most bodyworkers are worried about this happening with a client. If you tell him why, you have just lobbed your attraction at him, leaving him with knowledge that will help him exactly not at all. And then he’ll have to deal with it.

While I’m pretty certain that straight men have less baggage around this than women do, unwelcome sexual attention is just that: unwelcome. I promise you he will not feel a secret thrill at your confession, nor will he go home with a little smile on his face or anything that the “I should say this” part of your brain is telling you.

He will feel uncomfortable. He might go through your interactions wondering: did I cause this? Was I not professional enough? Is this happening with anyone else?

All of which could very much get in the way of him doing his job effectively, and just in general make him very anxious.

Please don’t burden this guy with your feelings. You can’t help feeling them, but you can help making them anyone else’s problem.

Quietly cancel. Find another massage therapist. I suggest hiring a nice lady.

 

How Do I Handle a Possibly Disabled Bicyclist After an Accident?

The other day in my van, when exiting a parking lot and joining traffic, I struck a cyclist whom I didn’t see because he was coming at me against traffic from behind a relatively blind corner. (Everybody is fine.) My issue is that the fellow, who was alone, seemed to have a disability of some kind, but which of course I was unfit to identify–perhaps it was only some deafness or a speech impediment, but perhaps he had a major developmental disability or past head trauma. Whatever it is, it seemed relevant to the accident in a couple of ways. First, it was a little difficult to communicate with him and understand him (ordinarily I would call that MY problem, but when collecting information and accounts of an incident, accuracy is critical). Second, I don’t know if his condition(s) was a factor in the accident itself, which seems like it could affect legal and insurance liability. And finally, I was unsure that he was even able to be a competent legal advocate for himself in that moment–for example, he wanted to leave the scene and forget about the incident, but was persuaded to stay.

With everything that needs to be coped with on the spot during such a stressful and confusing moment, how should one navigate these issues? Should I have inquired about his disability status either on the spot or later? Should I have asked whether he had a guardian or the ability to make legal decisions on his own? If he insisted on leaving the scene and I had sensed that he was unfit to make the decision or answer the question, should I have essentially DETAINED him until emergency help arrived? These scenarios are horrifying to imagine, potentially intrusive and insulting, and potentially VERY inflammatory if I ended up being mistaken. But I want to be a decent person and make sure I’m looking out for everybody involved, including protecting someone who may be vulnerable.

– Panic at the Citgo

Dear Panic,

First things first: you did the right thing. You did not physically restrain him, someone talked him into staying, and you did not ask intrusive questions regarding his competence.

In general, it’s probably best to assume that anyone who has just been in a terrifying accident (and regardless of fault, being hit by a van when you are on a bicycle is terrifying) that may or may not have included head trauma is not really competent to make the decision to leave the scene.

Beyond that, I am glad you didn’t ask him any questions about competence.

Those of us with obvious disabilities (whether it is an accent related to cerebral palsy or a hearing impairment, mobility equipment, or obvious limb differences, etc) so often have to deal with other people’s preconceived notions of what our brains must be like.

At best, people will do something like what they often do to be when they see my forearm crutches: Speak. Very. Slowly. And. Loudly. Using a ‘Special Voice’ generally reserved for children, and when I answer quickly and fluently they take a huge sigh of relief. At worst, people will do something like what a woman did to my friend Johanna a few years ago while she was trying to go holiday shopping alone: the manager of the store took one look at her and started SCREAMING about people who abandoned their charges and who left this poor girl alone and then she called the cops, so busy screaming and flailing at my friend’s clearly disabled aspect (Johanna has cerebral palsy) that she did not even notice the communication device or that my friend was trying to respond to her.

By the way, unlike me, Johanna is a Stanford graduate.

I understand that you were looking out for the man and that you had real concerns, but you have no idea what was going on with him. Maybe he was high. Maybe he was deaf. Maybe he had CP. Maybe he WAS cognitively disabled. Either way, all of those questions about being competent to represent himself legally can be worked out later if and when there are legal procedures — by himself if he does make his own life decisions in legal matters or by whomever is assigned this duty.

Your job is to do exactly what you did: look out for other people’s welfare, and try to talk them into staying until help arrives. regardless of his intellectual state, age, or possible brain damage. These are not things you needed to know; these are things that might have come out later if it were necessary for anyone to know. If he had left anyway, providing a detailed description of him to the police/ambulance when they arrived would have sufficed.

So: it’s good not to make all of these demands of information from him not just because it might be rude, but mainly because it’s not your business and it’s not actually particularly relevant to the situation for you to know this information.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on December 15, 2016.