How do I handle my unapologetically racist son?

Dear Gentle Butch,

My oldest son has become an unapologetic racist. He has opined that black and Hispanic people are unintelligent, destructive, and without self control. He has told me and my husband that we’re naïve and can’t face facts we don’t like. His comments on these subjects have ranged from dispassionate observations to mean-spirited jokes. But, despite what he’s said to us, he seems to function at a diverse high school without incident.

I’m not completely sure where all this has come from. His beliefs don’t seem to be based in any kind of larger right-wing perspective. His girlfriend is Jewish and we have several gay family friends that he’s still quite fond of.

I grew up in a very white bread, religious world. So did my husband. We both wanted to raise our children in a different environment. We made an effort to settle in a multicultural city, live in a diverse neighborhood, and send our children to schools where people aren’t all the same. Almost from the moment our son was born, we tried to teach him that prejudice, of any kind, was wrong.

If any other relative or acquaintance expressed some of the views my son has, I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But I can’t bring myself to pull away from him the way I would anyone else. We had him young and he was our only child for a long time. The three of us were once very close.

His views have created a big rift between us and put a significant strain on our household. My husband and I have made it clear to him that we don’t want racist statements in our home. And there has been a tacit agreement between us not to bring up issues that might lead to disagreement. I will admit that my son is better at adhering to it than I am. We’ve had several bad arguments. The last one got very nasty and we didn’t talk for a few days afterwards.

In almost every other way, he’s a good son and a good person. He works hard in school, stays out of trouble, and—when I returned to full-time employment—accepted greater responsibility for our three younger children lovingly and without complaint. His brother and sisters adore him. Sadly, I worry about the influence he might be having on them.

In some ways, I feel like this is karma. The arguments I’ve had with him remind me of the ones I had with my parents when I stopped being religious. This worries me because, eventually, my parents and I completely stopped communicating with one another.

My husband has told me that I need to stop “picking fights” with our son. He feels our time to mold him his passed (he’ll be leaving for college next year) and we have to behave accordingly. He says the best thing we can do is avoid talking about certain subjects and hope that our son changes his mind about them. I sense that he’s right and that this is really our only option. But, at the same time, I still feel like I should be doing more. Is my husband correct or is there some other effort I can make?

Signed,

Minneapolis Mom

 

Dear MM,

Oh, WOW.

Of course you aren’t going to cut your kid off. Come on. But you can fight his racism with every ounce of your strength. White supremacy is a hell of a drug, and you need to fight like hell to help get your son out of its clutches — and to keep your younger kids away from it as much as you can.

But first you have to get very uncomfortable. And remain so. And I’m getting very uncomfortable myself, because I am going to say awkward things.

Ready? Your son is probably right that you are somewhat naïve, at least if I’m right about what you mean about your upbringing. When you say “white bread,” do you mean “white?” As in: you grew up in a totally white town somewhere outside of the Twin Cities? You grew up never speaking to or interacting with any black or Latinx people at all as a child? That you probably remember the first time you met a black person?

Is it fair to say that your son has grown up with far more experience with black and Lantinx people than you have, even living where you are as adults, and thus sees you as pie-in-the-sky white liberals who have no on-the-ground experience?

I think facing up to the idea that perhaps you ARE somewhat naïve can help this situation. (Also, all teenagers think their parents are naïve, and fighting that is just a waste of time and breath.)

Ask yourself: am I horrified because he is thinking wrong thoughts? Did I just teach him “prejudice of any kind is bad” and end it there? Have I thought through and presented to him and my other kids what racism IS?

I’m not here to make excuses for your son’s racism, but even if he’s had lots of experience with black and brown people in school, what he might not have seen is how the system treated him and his classmates differently. Did he see kids he thought were lazy because they were disconnected and disenfranchised (or just plain hungry) in class but never learned about the specific, extremely purposeful systemic reasons they might feel disconnected? Does he know about redlining and food deserts and the racism of school funding models?

I think what a lot of white kids fail to realize, unless someone sits down and explicitly teaches them this, is the following: racism isn’t how a certain person FEELS about certain other people. Racism is a supremacist system that we white people set up from the very start of our country to keep the vast majority of the resources, comforts, rights, and power in the hands of a few. We as a country have continued to enforce and reinforce this in overt ways such as police violence and a completely horrifying (and economically disastrous to the future of our country) immigration policy, and in quiet and unseen ways such as making entire companies, schools, public spaces, and governmental entities only comfortable for white people.

So if you brought him up just saying: “don’t be racist,” and since our schools in Minneapolis don’t actually teach about redlining and the reservation system and Indian boarding schools and the Dakota 39 and our hideous policies and practices in exploiting migrant workers for sugar beets and the reason why we built 94 with an awfully strange route to destroy a row of black businesses and divide African-American and Jewish communities in North Minneapolis while conveniently destroying a multi-racial neighborhood in St. Paul with a strong black community in one fell swoop — kids just hear: ‘prejudice is bad because we are all the same and it is bad,’ and they look around themselves and see that white people sure do seem to be doing well for absolutely no reason they can see, well then why wouldn’t they draw racist conclusions?

I’m not saying all of this to make you tear your hair and feel bad about yourself. I’m saying all of this because you said you have younger children.

While I don’t think it’s too late for anyone to learn, I especially don’t think it’s too late for your young kids to learn. Teach them some of this racist history. Help them to see the system of white supremacy for what it is, instead of just telling them prejudice is wrong.

As for your son, and for your husband: when it comes to race, too many white people tacitly agree not to bring up certain topics. I know your spouse believes it’s too late to ‘mold him,’ but that is two kinds of bullshit: 1. It was too late to mold your son after you finished knitting him together in your womb. I know some of us THINK we have molded our kids into some shape, but really all we can do is try to educate them, rain down love on them, and keep our hands and feet clear. They are people, not clay. 2. You never stop teaching your children, and they never stop teaching you.

And one thing you can still teach your son is this: that you will NOT avoid topics to make a racist more comfortable. That until he either gets himself educated or keeps his mouth shut in your house and around your other children, he is going to be very, very, VERY uncomfortable.

And in doing so, you teach your other kids: we do not remain silent in the face of racism. We do not help other white people feel comfortable in voicing their hateful bullshit, even if they’re family.

Especially if they’re family.

So if your husband doesn’t like it he should get some ear plugs and go play video games or something. (I’m pretty annoyed with him, in case you haven’t picked up on this. He should care about this, too.)

Now. As for karma.

Western people often see karma as, basically, God’s judgement. Kind of like, yanno, a conservative Christian might see the world. And that’s how you seem to be talking about it. It’s not a thing. It isn’t. Knock it off.

But you’re right in one way: these arguments seem reminiscent of the ones you had with your mother. She thought she was fighting for your soul too, I imagine.

Here’s where I feel like they are similar, and why I mentioned your possible naiveté, at the risk of not being terribly Gentle: if you were just telling your children what to think and how to behave based on the idea that prejudice is “wrong,” it could be reminiscent of the idea of sin: racism is a sin, end of story.

It also possibly has the same urgency as those with your mother: our country is on a razor’s edge right now, with our Bigot-in-Chief. The stakes are so, so high.

Shifting the conversation to information on our nation’s white supremacist history, with specific examples, (within earshot of the younger kids) allowing him to draw his own conclusions? That’s breaking the cycle.

Good luck.

 

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.

Can I still make a woman orgasm?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I’m a fairly well adjusted single lesbian. I’ve had female lovers since I was a teenager, and have had a fairly fun and active sex life.

However.

My last two major relationships were with women who could not orgasm. So, it’s literally been more than 8 years since I’ve gotten a woman off.

And now I’m nervous.  What if I’ve forgotten how?

Signed,
Stone Butch’s Bottom Blues

 

Dear SBBB,

The wonderful thing about sex is that every woman’s orgasm is different. I’m not going to say that’s also the awful thing about sex, because if we were all just coded creatures that all orgasmed the same way, would sitting around pushing each other’s buttons be as fun? (I said AS fun.)

So the thing is this: you DON’T know how to make ‘a woman’ orgasm. You know how to make the women you have slept with orgasm, except for the two who don’t. And neither does anyone else.

There. All better, now?

No, really.

One of the many terrific things about sex is that you are getting to know how someone’s body not only looks, feels, tastes, and smells — but how their body (and their sexy sexy brain) works. One of the specific joys of sleeping with someone you don’t already know how to get off is the journey getting there!

It’s unlikely you’re going to just quickly get each other off in a rote fashion. You have to pay attention. You have to explore.

No. You GET to pay attention. You GET to explore. And you get to listen.

One of the things I’ve heard a lot of women say is that sex between women has fewer expectations than sex between a man and a woman. There isn’t a generally-accepted definition even of what sex IS.

How freeing, right? To have no expectations? No definitions?

And how terrifying.

If you lean into that fear and let it make your pulse race, if you let feeling a bit out of your element add excitement instead of panic, you’re going to at the very least have a great time.

And if she’s good at knowing what she wants and using her words? All the better.

You can’t forget what you don’t already know. So go get ’em. Get yourself some knowledge, and take your time learning it.

 

How do I interpret my partner’s messages?

My long-term partner and I have been bouncing around the general thoughts that long-term partners have sometimes, about wanting the excitement that comes with the start of a relationship and how kids drain the energy from being together and so forth. 

Sometimes, in these conversations, she brings the topic around to open relationships, but in a really equivocating way.

My romantic fantasy when I was younger was to be part of a triad or a couple of couples. We talked about it when we were first getting together and she very clearly ruled it out as unrealistic. A few times recently, though, she’s brought up the idea of dating other people and left it hanging out there. If I ask her what she wants, she points out again how it wouldn’t work, for example talking about how, for the few people we know who seem to be pulling it off, we know many more whose situations are kind of a hot mess.

Should I interpret this as her testing the waters while keeping deniability, or should I be concerned that she’s trying to convey some other message indirectly?

— Does She Mean It?

Dear DSMI,

I think she’s testing the waters while keeping deniability. It’s a very common practice among people who are a little afraid of what they want, or who fear their partner will run screaming.

Then again, she also sounds like someone who sort of knows what she wants, but doesn’t know if she wants to actually GET what she wants, if that makes sense. Like, second-guessing herself as soon as she begins speaking.

That said, I could be dead wrong about either of these things.

The only person who knows is her.  And you need to ask her this question outright: “Are you testing the waters on dating other people while keeping plausible deniability?”

And then don’t equivocate. Don’t back down. Don’t let her change the subject. Just wait. Do not break eye contact while you slowly eat a raw onion to show her how much you mean it.

But first.

What do YOU want?

Do you still have the same fantasy as you did as a young adult: of a triad or a few linked couples? Is it something that you want?

Or are you trying to suss out what you think she wants instead? Not your job, and certainly not your job to ascertain if she is trying to convey another message indirectly/psychically/through pheromones.

FWIW, her arguments (that it’s not realistic, that the people you know doing this are mainly hot messes) are crap.

The vast majority of people who are married are monogamous. And in the US., according to the American Psychological Association, the divorce rate still hovers at 40-50%.

Sounds like almost half of all monogamists are definitely hot messes to me!

Remaining monogamous does not, clearly, guarantee a lifelong relationship. It doesn’t guarantee happiness. It isn’t better than non monogamy. It’s just more COMMON. Which means it’s less examined. And with only two people involved (I mean except for the person one cheats with), you can hide issues more easily. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Monogamy doesn’t keep your relationship from being a hot mess.

Listen. We’re ALL hot messes. That’s what human beings are. Our evolution looks like this:

At no point in this evolution do we develop the ability to read minds.

And you know what’s not realistic? Everything. Love isn’t realistic. Having kids isn’t realistic. Working a 40-50 hour week all the goddamned time with only two weeks of vacation isn’t realistic.

But people do it every day.

So, have a conversation about what you WANT. Ask her what she WANTS. Tell her the details aren’t at issue right now; pie in the sky, what do you both WANT?

Don’t let her squirm away. Take your chances.

Then you can start chipping away at the dream with realism and taxes and stuff.

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.

 

Why Can’t He Take Teasing?

I’m a lucky woman in many ways. I’ve been married for 12 years to a great guy who earns well, is a great dad to our two boys and is mostly fun to be around.Trouble is he can’t seem to tolerate any teasing from me. I always back it up, apologize honestly because I don’t want to cause pain but this is getting really old.Teasing and ribbing is supposed to be fun for each other. I welcome his jesting and laugh uproariously when he gets a good jab in but he can’t seem to accept it from me. We’ve talked about it in therapy but we don’t seem to get anywhere with it.How can we get past this?

– Bored in Baltimore

Dear Bored,

You want to get past this? Then stop. You’re bored, but he’s hurting.

Then, get different help from just couple’s therapy: He needs individual therapy to pull apart why he can dish it out, but he can’t take appropriate teasing and ribbing from his spouse (if that’s what’s going on). Or maybe you need individual therapy to pull apart why you confuse cruelty for humor (if that’s what’s going on). I’m guessing both would help.

There are so many reasons that a person might be too touchy to accept ribbing but might dish it out: he might have some childhood issues from having been emotionally abused by someone who was supposed to love him and he might hate teasing, and he might dish it out to you just because he thinks that’s what you want. Or he might not really understand that sort of humor at all.

Or he might be abusive himself and using his hurt feelings to prevent you from getting back at him when he says truly nasty things. (You said ‘when he gets in a good jab,’ which could mean something sinister or funny or neither or both.) Or, he might suffer from fragile masculinity and feel that a woman cutting him down is ‘ball busting’ but when he does it, it’s all in good fun. I dunno. But he needs to figure that shit out. HE does.

As for you, there’s something that jumped out at me in your letter that I want to address: you didn’t sign it ‘baffled’ or ‘hurt’ or ‘worried’ or any number of ways you could have signed it. You signed it ‘bored.’

Your description of him is astoundingly boring. He is a ‘great’ (very very vague modifier) guy who earns well, (yawn), is a ‘great’ (there’s that vague description again) dad to our two boys (yawn) and is mostly fun to be around. (mooooostly. yaaaawwwwwwwwwwwn.)

I don’t think you’re just bored with the lack of clever repartee. I think you’re bored with HIM, and possibly covering up resentment toward him for being so goddamned boring to you that your jabs have far more barb and venom in them than you realize, because you are feeling stifled and bored— and maybe even a little angry.

Did the two of you tease each other before you married, or before you had kids? Did you both enjoy it? Is this something that used to be there and no longer is? It sounds like this was never part of your relationship, but you have some idea that marriages are ‘supposed to’ contain this sort of humor.

Your marriage is not what you felt it was ‘supposed to’ be. Maybe you feel a little swindled, as you checked off everything you thought you wanted, but it’s not satisfying.

  • In our society, you’re ‘supposed to’ get married. Check.
  • You’re ‘supposed to’ have two kids. Check, check.
  • He’s ‘supposed to’ ‘earn well.’ Check.
  • “Teasing and ribbing is supposed to be fun for each other.” NOPE.

Perhaps being married to the same ‘great’ guy for 12 years is not satisfying to you. Perhaps parenting isn’t what you thought it would be. Perhaps the job he has that earns the paycheck you like keeps him away too much, or the money doesn’t satisfy you like you thought it would. But you are focusing on the lack of teasing and ribbing, because that seems like the most obvious issue.

I think you might be miserable, and I think your boredom might be part of that misery, and I think THAT is what you should focus on instead.

The letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on January 5, 2017.

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.