Q. One of These Things Is Not Like the Other: My then-fiancé and I struggled with being ultra-long distance (he was in Europe, I was in America) during the pandemic, particularly with mounting travel bans and the need to postpone our wedding more than once. I ended up having an affair with a friend. The fallout was ugly. I am mixed race, my fiancé is white, and my affair partner is a person of color. My fiancé was understandably hurt and upset and lashed out often in his anger and pain. A recurring theme in these explosions was the use of incredibly racist, belittling language and threats of violence directed toward my affair partner. Several times my fiancé even messaged the affair partner directly to threaten him physically. I was distressed, but if I attempted to call out my fiancé’s behavior, he turned his anger toward me and claimed I was “defending” or “choosing” my affair partner. He said he had never acted this way before, that my actions had caused him the hurt which was now causing him to lash out, that my affair partner deserved all the hate and vitriol, and that if I had just “not been a slut,” he would never have said or done these things. I knew I was in the wrong so I accepted his behavior.
We ended up getting married, but I can’t forget that awful time in our relationship when I was subjected to near-daily rants about my affair partner’s skin color, ethnic attributes, and presumed physical “endowment” based on racist stereotypes, as well as my fiancé mocking me personally for choosing to have an affair with “someone so ugly.” Am I crazy? Is this behavior justified because I hurt him? It seems a bit rich for me to have an affair and then tell my fiancé he’s the one who’s wrong for being racist, but I’m really having trouble reconciling this part of him.
A: You are not crazy and the behavior is not justified. Your husband is a really mean, hateful, racist, abusive person. This isn’t complicated. You were wrong to have an affair, but if he couldn’t get over it, the thing to do was to leave you, not stay with you and become a monster. Anyone you ask will tell you the same thing, but I understand that if you are not used to being treated with decency, it might not feel as obvious to you. Your wondering whether you are at fault or wrong here tells me that your self-esteem is in the gutter. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’ve experienced cruelty and mistreatment throughout your life, which set you up to accept it when it came from this man.
So while I’d love for you to run from your husband as fast as you can, I think the first step is to work on feeling better about yourself, trusting your instincts, and starting to believe that you are someone who deserves respect. To get there, you’re going to need a lot of input into your daily life from people who, well, aren’t monsters. A therapist or counselor would be wonderful if you can arrange that. If not, do you have a trusted friend who you can open up to? A self-help book that makes you feel like you might have something to offer and can forgive yourself for the affair? Hell, therapy TikTok would be a decent start. And if you do get to a place where you can leave your husband, maybe that affair partner is still available!
Help! My Mom Doesn’t Think My Fiancé Is Enough.
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Q. Apologies Making Me Nuts: My sister-in-law is a chronic over-apologizer. And not in an “I’m sorry but can you help me,” sort of way. If you ask her to pass the salt, she apologizes. If you hold a door open for her, she apologizes. If you walk into the living room and she’s already on the couch, she apologizes. And she does it with the emotional intensity you would use if you ran over someone’s dog with your car. I know she has serious anxiety, but it’s so draining and I end up going out of my way to avoid triggering it. I need to know what to say when she does it because there are only so many times I can say “No worries!” without it sounding hostile, and I know you aren’t supposed to say “Don’t apologize,” but it sometimes slips out. Should I just ignore it? Should I talk to her about it? Please help!
A: I don’t really understand how it’s draining to you for her to do this. Why does “No worries” have to become hostile? You can just keep going, living your life, and letting her say what she wants to! If you really can’t spare the two extra words, why don’t you tell her “If you apologize when there’s nothing to be sorry for, I’m just going to change the topic, okay? I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you but I get tired of hearing myself say ‘no worries.’”
But really, when you find yourself deeply annoyed by something someone else is doing that really doesn’t really affect you, I think it’s time for a deep breath and reset. What’s really bothering you about her? Is there a larger issue with her personality? Do you simply not like being around her? Does something about her apparent lack of confidence remind you of a side of yourself that makes you uncomfortable? If there are no other issues, accept her little quirk, and by all means do not take her aside to tell her she has to change just because you’d like her to.
Q. Don’t Call Me Karen: My partner has taken to accusing me of being a Karen any time I ask something of a service worker. We are both women in our early-20s, and I left a grueling job as a restaurant manager several months ago, for context. I like to think that because of my background, I know how to ask for things without being a jerk, and usually I’m only asking for minor corrections.
For example, I like unsweetened tea, but I’m often served sweet tea. When this happens, I wait to get the attention of a waiter or an employee and just ask for a correction. My partner thinks that I should just let it go. We got groceries for pickup a few weeks ago and the employee who bagged them put all of our squishy produce under heavy jars and cans. I went into the store and asked to return the product. I didn’t make a fuss, raise my voice, or ask to speak to a manager. I just explained the situation, asked for a refund, and went about my day. My partner said that $20 worth of crushed berries wasn’t a big enough deal to bother anyone about it.
Part of this comes from the fact that she has severe social anxiety and is afraid to ask for help. She was once locked out of her apartment on Christmas and refused to call maintenance or a locksmith because she didn’t want to be an inconvenience. She was going to sleep in her car! On Christmas! I eventually just called maintenance on her behalf, despite her begging me not to, and got her into her apartment in the space of 10 minutes. I feel that her accusations come from her anxiety, but it just keeps nagging at me that maybe that’s how other people perceive it, too. Is it really so awful to politely ask service workers for corrections to honest mistakes?
A: I feel like most relationships have a person who likes to speak to the manager (because honestly, even if you are a non-Karen, sometimes the manager needs to be spoken to!) and a person who loathes the thought of speaking to the manager. And typically the more laid-back person gets their needs addressed and their issues rectified because their partner is willing to say something. It makes me think about this Twitter interaction that always makes me laugh:
You’re both women, but you get the idea. She should be happy you’re making sure she gets the mashed potatoes and not the cole slaw! But I get it, she’s not.
As an extra measure of caution, you should ask other people if you come off as rude or obnoxious. Tell them to be honest. If they say no, keep going and work on ways that your partner can be protected from feeling embarrassed by these interactions. So, if you’re the one to go to the grocery store to demand justice over the crushed berry incident, she doesn’t have to be there. If you have to complain to the server when she’s there you can say “I’m so sorry… I’m embarrassing my partner by doing this” to make it abundantly clear that she’s not part of the exchange. And if she refuses to complain about her own stuff, that’s on her and you shouldn’t step in. If she wants to sleep in the car, she can sleep in the car.
Q. Lucky to Be Employed: After rising to the level of manager of a multi-million dollar annual portfolio of products, my family life was so insane, I took a step back to be with my kids. That was four years ago. It’s been a marvelous time, but college isn’t getting any further on the horizon, so it’s back to work for me. For over a year, I prepped my resume, networked, and applied. I got a great offer with a better title and almost the same level of pay. Thing is, turns out the work is quite painfully junior and not at all what the company implied I was applying for. I am someone who loves a good challenge and withers without it. I feel like I should be grateful for being able to jump back into the workforce with this pay and title, and I am, but the day-to-day is just so demoralizing. I’ve asked for more work, but the only things they’ve given me are more admin-level. How should I change my perspective or my actions? Would it be a bad idea to be frank with my bosses that I thought I was being hired for more?
A: Something I always try to remember is that the way employment works is that you are there to do the work that is useful to your employer, in exchange for money. You’re not there to do the work that would make you happiest. Seems obvious but when you are passionate about what you do, it can be easy to forget. With this in mind, your employer has let you know what they’d like you to do, and it would be a headache and an uphill battle to do something different. Your time would be better spent doing more meaningful personal projects in your free time or going on LinkedIn to find a better fit. When potential employers ask why you want to make a move, you can honestly say “I wanted more of a challenge” (unlike most people who say that when they really mean “I absolutely hate my boss”).
Q. Bad Boss, Better BOH: I work the front desk at a small business in a niche service industry. I LOVE my co-workers—I think they’re amazing at what they do, hold themselves to great ethical standards, work hard, and always go the extra mile for each other and for our customers. However, our bosses are pretty terrible. They spend extravagant money on stupid things, set random and unpredictable opening hours, and are terrible with clients. It’s a tale as old as time.
My problem is this: I’m only human, so I tend to vent to friends and acquaintances about all the silly and outlandish things I have to put up with at work. People usually then take it as an invitation to insult the entire industry, the company I work for, and the services we provide. I’m actually really proud of the work my co-workers do, just not the circumstances they have to do it in! This isn’t my “dream” job, and I am applying for other work, but in general: How can I talk about the weird and annoying parts of my job without getting defensive about the job itself? Must I open with a PowerPoint about the nobility of the working man? I don’t want to be scolded, but it hurts my feelings to hear great colleagues belittled like this.
A: “I’m going to complain about these people at work and I want you to hear and understand me but please respond only to the very narrowly defined thing I’m complaining about. Negative comments about related topics will not be tolerated” is not a really festive—or effective—way to have happy hour talk. That’s not how conversation works. If you really don’t want to open the door to these remarks, I would suggest venting to other people in your industry instead of friends and acquaintances (they’ll probably relate more anyway!). If you must discuss the silly and outlandish antics of your bosses, you could guide people away from slamming the entire line of work by saying “I really love my job so much and I’m proud of what I do, but I will not be able to cope if my boss replies all or spends thousands of dollars on stupid tote bags again.”
Re: Q. Don’t Call Me Karen: The best thing I learned from therapy is that just because someone is angry at you, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong. I think it applies here—her anxiety is exploding into your lives together. You are allowed to ask for corrections or refunds when people don’t do their jobs properly. From your description of how you ask politely to receive the things you’ve already paid for, and the huge red flag of her preference to spend the night in her car rather than ask maintenance to do their job, I would seriously consider breaking up with her. Your lives together will be increasingly ruled by her unchecked, out-of-control, untreated/unsuccessfully treated anxiety.
A: Wonderful advice. And yes, the car thing is a big red flag that this anxiety about asking for anything is affecting her life in negative ways.
Re: Q. Apologies Making Me Nuts: I sense there’s no one in your life like this, Prudie, and that’s good news! My partner has this problem, and I can confirm its power to drive you crazy has nothing to do with an underlying contempt for the over-apologizer. You get sad and worn down when someone you love replies to normal, everyday, neutral statements as if you’re criticizing or yelling at them! I agree with the overall advice to treat this person with grace; it can be a compulsion from anxiety disorders like OCD, trauma from their upbringing or past treatment, or other things that aren’t their choice or fault. If you’re close enough to your SIL to express concern, test the waters about whether she’s tried/considered therapy, etc. (from a place of real caring and not backhandedness or insistence), that may be one way to go. Living like this is probably really distressing for the SIL, too! If you’re not close enough to do that without hurting feelings or creating more space, best to let it go, yes. But just because this bothers the LW doesn’t mean they secretly don’t like her.
A: “It can be a compulsion from anxiety disorders like OCD, trauma from their upbringing or past treatment, or other things that aren’t their choice or fault.” But this is even more reason to leave this woman alone! Your advice to nudge to therapy might be appropriate if the letter writer really felt motivated by concern about mental health issues, but that’s not the case here. She’s just extremely annoyed and admittedly on the verge of becoming hostile. If help is needed, she’s the wrong person to lead her sister-in-law to it.
Re: Q. Lucky to Be Employed: I’m a lawyer and have had a few jobs like that. Sometimes I just needed to have a predictable and easy day at work, sometimes I was trying to make some kind of career pivot and needed the line on my resume and the time to figure out my next move, and sometimes I was so bored I started looking for a new job when I had been there long enough. You might experience all three of these in a single day. Keep on networking (you should be doing that regardless in order to find something better if it becomes necessary and out of your hands) and don’t seat it while you’re there. Do your work well—you may need the job for longer than you think for other reasons, and it’s always better to do a good job in case you need these people for references later.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks everyone, that’s it for today!
More Advice From Slate
Recently I started therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Since I was a small child I’ve been very anxious, but after having kids, my anxiety reached a whole new level. In the past, I had tried several different therapists, but we never clicked. And then not long ago I met with a phenomenal therapist. After only one session, I felt very connected and comfortable; I made great progress in one short hour. One thing we discussed at length is my near constant fear of losing one of my children. For our second session, my therapist canceled, citing a death in the family.