Ask A Helping Han #11: Negotiating Nonmonogamy When You Have Someone In Mind

Dear Han,

I'm a woman in a serious relationship with a man. Both of us are bisexual/pansexual but neither of us is 100% out.  We generally move through the world as a straight-appearing couple, with all the privileges that come with that.

We're long distance for the next few years because of work. Our plans for the future line up — we both want children, we both want to live where he is now, and all the logistics aside, I really love him. He's conscientious and kind, the only person who can make me laugh until I can't breathe, and I am so excited to live our life together! He is what makes a place home for me.

In the beginning of our relationship, we were all over each other physically, but that's waned as time has gone on. I strongly suspect that being on hormonal birth control tanks my libido, and finishing a PhD certainly did not help my stress levels. We still have a satisfying sex life, it's just that irresistible urge has faded, and I'm frustrated about it. I think it's mostly laziness and the fact that it's so familiar. I'm a very sexual person when I'm single, and I think for me the excitement is in the unfamiliar — finding a spark, a connection, the flirting, and exploring this new cool person's life.

My partner has mostly dated women, and I have mostly dated men. I have only recently been out to myself. I grew up in a religious, conservative culture and I met my partner at a time when I was just beginning to date women, so I haven't had time to fully understand my sexuality. We have talked a lot together about our same-gender fantasies, and also about engaging in ethical nonmonogamy together or separately, and I think opening up the relationship could improve our sex life — but it's all been hypothetical.

I have noticed that when I have been seeing a man for a while, I tend to get more sexually attracted to women. I fantasize almost exclusively about women and the people I notice around me as being attractive are mostly women. I still see men as attractive, but that sexual pull or chemistry I feel with people is mainly with women.

That makes this next bit weird and confusing for me. I've just moved to a small town outside of a major city where I travel often for work and to see friends (I used to live in the major city). I recently saw one friend I hadn't seen in several years — in fact, the last time saw him, we had an intense fling. It was fun, we like each other outside of the sex, so we stayed in touch. But when I saw him again, I realized that the sexual chemistry is still there for both of us, and it was powerful.  We talked, there was some light flirting, but nothing else happened. He asked if my partner and I are monogamous and made sure that I knew he would respect that. Still, the feelings are intense. I have never before understood how cheating happens, and suddenly, I totally understand and it scares me that I have these feelings.

Now the questions.

1. What's up with being more attracted to women when I'm dating a dude? Is this some internalized gender binary BS that I need to unlearn, or is this a thing? If it's a thing, why? What do I do about it? For what it's worth, I'm pretty much always attracted to nonbinary people, and in general, more attracted to queer people than straight people.

2. Is a long distance period the best or worst time to bring up nonmonogamy? It think it would be the easiest time to actually act on it, but is it more risky because of the distance? My partner is so emotionally sensitive, in a great way, and the last thing I want to do is to hurt him by making him feel like I don't want him. I do! And the fact that our sex life has gotten a bit boring makes it worse — it sounds awful for me to want it with someone else rather than more of it with my partner.

3. What do I do about my friend? Should I tell my partner I was flirting with my friend? Is that cheating? Is it cheating emotionally to keep hanging out with him? Should I avoid my friend entirely?

More broadly about nonmonogamy, how do you know when it's a good idea or not to get involved with a certain person? I think part of the reason my alarm bells aren't going off about my friend is that there is zero possibility of a serious relationship with him. He's much older than me, does not want children, wants to stay in the city he's in, and his lifestyle is not what I want. I have had a few of these types of relationships that have been 'friends with benefits' — people I genuinely love as people, whose life goals just are irreconcilably different than mine but with whom I have an amazing chemistry and a great friendship. I've really enjoyed getting to know these people and I still keep in touch with them — the door is always open between us. I travel a lot and have moved around a lot in the past 10 years, so I've just never had the opportunity to meet up with one of these friends while I'm currently in a committed relationship.

I would say this is a 'just about sex' type situation, but it's really not, because I care about my friend. I don't want to mislead him about the nature of our relationship, but if I could have the this relationship with him without hurting anyone else, I absolutely would. My feelings for him don't change my feelings for my partner at all — my partner is the one I want to make a life with. I think that's why I don't feel as guilty as I think I should. But I still have a lot of love for other people, and for the unique relationships we have together. How do I explain this to my partner without hurting him?

Thanks so much for your advice and for creating this community where people can feel safe and supported!

Best,

Confused about the Ethics of Nonmonogamy

 

Dear CATEON,

This is comprised of so many pieces, and I want to address them all! Let’s get right into it.

  1. I’m not honestly sure what the deal is with being more attracted to one gender or another at any given time! Orientation can be such a mystery, especially when you’re on the bi spectrum. I find myself attracted almost exclusively to women and nonbinary AFAB people these days, and I’m married to a man — but I’ve definitely gone through phases of wanting to Kiss All Of The Dudes. As your chemistry with your friend indicates, this isn’t an all or nothing thing, so I wouldn’t think on it too hard. Maybe you’re just more into women than men, or really selective about which men you want to get involved with? WHO KNOWS. As long as that inclination isn’t making you be shitty to anyone, I wouldn’t worry about it.

  2. I think that the question of whether long distance is a better or worse time to try out nonmonogamy does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. It could be easier, in that you aren’t going to have to deal with your partner being busy because they’re out with someone else and vice versa. Conversely, it could be harder because you won’t have the reassurance of your partner’s physical presence to remind you that they still want you, and you won’t have the opportunity to meet any new partners of theirs IRL. I think that the best way to figure out whether this would be a good time for you and your boyfriend or not is just to talk it out! Be open with each other about the things that excite you and the things that scare you, think about your pros and cons, and make a decision together about whether this is the right moment or not. If it is, then make sure to discuss very clear guidelines for how you’re going to handle things. Full disclosure? Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? Are you only okay with casual sex, or are actual romantic entanglements alright? Make sure you’ve set yourselves up for success as much as you possibly can.

  3. No, flirting a bit with your friend is not cheating. However, if you and your boyfriend DO decide to move forward with opening up your relationship now or soon, be transparent with him about your friend; tell him what your history is, what you’re interested in pursuing, how you feel about it all. Ultimately, I’d say, give him veto power if he’s uncomfortable with it. I tend to not recommend nonmonogamy as a solution to an attraction to a particular person; I think it’s a decision that should be about what you both feel will be most fulfilling for you as a couple, not about getting a hall pass to follow up on a specific crush. Consider for yourself, are you interested in nonmonogamy at this moment because it’s a thing that you think you want in your life long term, or are you interested because you want to pursue something with your friend? If it’s only the latter, I’d do some serious thinking about whether it’s a good idea.

One note on the idea of your starting something with your friend: I know that balance can’t be guaranteed in any nonmonogamous relationship agreement, but in general, it tends to be harder for the male half of a male/female relationship to find additional partners than it is for the female half. You having a built in semi-serious relationship lined up right off the bat is only going to make that disparity more evident, so really think about your partner’s feelings in all this, and how you would feel if the tables were turned and he was the one who had a close friend he was ready to immediately jump into something with. Also, like I said before, talk to him about it — in a way that makes it clear that you really do want to know how he feels about the idea, and that you will respect his wishes if he doesn’t want you to pursue it.

Overall, I think this is 100% about open and honest conversation, expression of your respective wants and needs, and respect for one another’s deal breakers. If you decide to do this, you want to make sure to do it in as safe a manner as possible for both of you, emotionally. Set ground rules, set regular check ins to see how you’re both feeling and reevaluate as needed, and be open to renegotiating or stopping the experiment completely if it’s proving to be too painful. If you want to be with this person long term, you want to make sure that you’re fulfilling both of your needs — and that may require a bit of compromise from both of you.

A final note, which is only tangentially related: if you DO decide to open things up, I highly encourage you not to put gender rules on things. The idea of “it’s fine but only if the person is not the same gender as me” is so weird and heteronormative and queer fetishizing to me, it makes me a little queasy. That a woman would be “allowed” to hook up with women but not with men (or vice versa) is just so very diminishing of the value of same sex relationships, and leans heavily into bi erasure territory. I know you didn’t say this was a potential reality for your relationship, but based on your first paragraph about both being interested in exploring same sex relationships, I just wanted to throw it out there.

I hope you find this all helpful, and best of luck to you!

Love,

Han

P.S. Thank you for using just as many em dashes in your writing as I do. It makes me feel very seen!

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask A Helping Han #10: Providing Guidance to Budding Activists

Dear Han,

First of all, I'm a huge fan of the podcast, and I especially love your approach to handling social justice issues, so I thought I'd reach out about something that's been bugging me for a while.

I am a couple years out of college and work full-time in the progressive political space. Without going into too much detail, I know my stuff and I'm pretty familiar with how Congressional offices, political campaigns, and advocacy groups work. In college, most of my circle of friends were liberal arts majors and creative types. They all shared my progressive political views, but they were not politically active until after Trump's election — my pleas for them to help during the 2016 election, when they could have actually prevented some of this stuff from happening, fell on deaf ears, but I digress.

Since January 2017, my friends have all become much more active in political causes, which I am thrilled about (well, I'm not thrilled about the circumstances that motivated this, but I'm glad they're taking action). One of my friends has even gone so far as to start a political blog about different ways to take action.

My concern is that in their eagerness to do something, my friends are sometimes led to take actions that I know are not the most effective use of their time. A good example is calling Members of Congress who are not their own representatives — while I've seen this practice encouraged online, I know that these representatives are not obligated to consider input from people who don't live in their district, so by calling, they're only preventing people who do live in the district from having the opportunity to express their opinion. Or, a couple months ago, a photo went viral of someone writing a check to their representative's campaign with "thoughts and prayers" written in place of a dollar amount. While I appreciate that the original photo was a creative way to raise awareness about gun violence, some of my friends then proceeded to do the same, either addressing the checks to their own members of Congress or to other high-profile legislators. I know from my professional life that all representatives have finance staffers who would be responsible for handling what looks like a donation and that campaign offices and "official" offices are legally not allowed to communicate with each other, so they're basically sending their opinion to an overworked employee, with no impact on policy, who will have no way to pass their sentiments on to the desired target. I know this seems like a harmless and fun thing to do, but I worry that it makes them feel satisfied for having taken action without having any impact on the cause.

Despite knowing my professional background, my friends don't ask my advice on how they can most effectively take action, and I've been hesitant to give them unsolicited feedback on how they choose to get involved. I'm becoming slightly annoyed that they don't seem to respect my opinion on something that's so important to me. My friend who started a blog has written about topics that are directly related to my job without ever asking for my input or even letting me know she was researching this topic, and then published incorrect information. Look, I know that everyone has the right to express their political views, but this has been my life's work for years and years, long before it was "cool," while for my friends it's just a fairly recent hobby, and it's hard not to feel disrespected when they act as if they're experts. This is especially frustrating because I know a lot of organizations that are in desperate need of volunteers where my friends could make a real impact, but they never want to participate in these opportunities.

How should I approach this? Should I take it upon myself to critique my friends' ways of getting involved and suggest more effective courses of action, or would this come across as annoying and intrusive?

Thanks,

Activist in a World of Slactivists

 

Dear Activist,

My journey as an activist involved a fairly steep learning curve. I started looking for social justice jobs in 2015, when I’d hit the point of feeling really helpless politically, living in a liberal city where it felt like my vote didn’t go very far. When I started at my current job, I had — to put it kindly — no fucking clue what I was doing. It took a lot of gentle teaching from colleagues to get me on the right path to be a solid activist and ally, and I’m still learning today.

There’s this attitude that comes up a lot amongst long term activists of “where were you when…”? I totally get it, but also, you’ve gotta remember, everyone has their own Moment of Realization where they start to see how bad things actually are, and it usually doesn’t happen until something affects them directly. We have to be patient with newer activists, just as more seasoned activists were once patient with us as we learned the ropes and made rookie mistakes. Teach gently, and be grateful they’re here now, rather than berating them for not being there yet before.

All of that said, I think that helping direct your friends’ enthusiasm is an extremely worthwhile goal, and your unsolicited advice is absolutely worth giving. However, I think this is one of those places where a private message is preferable to a public one, and assuming best intentions will go a long way. So when your friends post things that encourage people to take actions that aren’t particularly helpful, I think you can message them something along the lines of “Hey, I saw your post and it’s awesome that you want to take action on X! I keep seeing stuff like this going around and I wanted to let you know that in actuality, taking Y action is way more likely to be effective than Z. I’m happy to hook you up with resources if that would be helpful!”

Also, be honest with yourself: do you know exactly what all of your friends do for a living? Chances are, your friends aren’t purposefully avoiding your advice —  they just didn’t think to ask, because the fact that this is your career isn’t at the forefront of their minds. As long as you aren’t rude about offering to help, it’s likely that they’ll be grateful for your guidance! Post-election, I made a post on Facebook openly offering to help guide angry people to the ways they could help most. I said something along the lines of “Everyone is super mad right now, and feeling really helpless, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. If you’re at a loss and would like my help, let me know what you have excess of (time, money, emotional energy) and I’ll help direct you to what you can do to make the biggest impact, whether it’s through volunteering, making calls, or giving donations.” Then I pointed people towards local orgs making a big difference to help with, connected them with their representatives, recommended organizations to become members of, and passed on links to petitions etc. to whoever asked.

For your friend with the blog, I would openly offer to consult or read over their stuff. For your friends taking less-than-effective actions, I’d try to start a one-on-one conversation about whether they’d like tips on making a bigger impact. For yourself, I’d try to remember that these people are coming from good places, and that we all had to start somewhere. Channel their energy into the greater good, and be glad that they at least share your values. There are worse starting points than being misguidedly well intentioned.

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask A Helping Han #9: Emotional Imbalances in Romantic Relationships

Hi Han,

There is an issue I keep seeing pop up in the dating world. My view is torn, and I was hoping I could get your thoughtful perspective. I'll give you my personal example of this issue, but I see variants of it all the time.

Many years ago, I started dating someone casually. I was very clear that I wasn't interested in a serious relationship (mentioning it several times etc.), though I did care about them very much. It became clear very quickly that they were in love with me. This wasn't uncomfortable for me, and they didn't ask for more than I was willing to give, but I knew that we wanted different things and that, ultimately, they were going to get their heart broken.

I took the perspective that they were an adult and could make their own decisions. And if they chose to still be involved with me, despite knowing there was a difference in what we wanted, then that was their choice to make. I didn't want to make the decision to end the relationship "for their own good.”

Now, I'm not sure that approach was the right one to take. I still believe people should have self-determination, but in a situation where someone is "impaired" by strong emotion/self esteem issues etc., are they actually in a position to make that judgement themselves? I would never hook up with someone who was drunk, so why is it okay to do the same with someone "drunk on love"? Knowing that they were not going to get what they wanted, and that I essentially held all the power, was it my responsibility to stop things going on for as long as they did (or not start them at all)?

I'm caught between not wanting to make people's decisions for them, and not wanting to engage in behavior that I know will ultimately hurt someone. How do I be good here?

Thanks,

How To Be A Good Person
 

Dear HTBAGP,

In my experience, it is really, really rare to find oneself in a relationship where one person does not have stronger feelings for their partner than the other. Ending up on the same page is one of those rare, amazing things that I swear feels like Hallelujah Chorus is playing in your head when it happens. More often than not, it seems like one person falls harder than the other, and it sets up a power dynamic where the partner who is less invested holds more of the power, because they have less to lose if things don’t work out. It’s just an uncomfortable truth of dating.

I don’t think that you did anything wrong in this situation. Autonomy is super important, and your partner knew what they were getting in to. Maybe they hoped your feelings would change, but you were up front about what you had to offer, and they had a choice as to whether they were content with accepting that or not.

I have definitely broken up with people who felt more for me than I did for them, and I stand by my decision to do so. However, I didn’t make that decision because I thought I knew better than they did what they needed or could handle—I did it because *I* was uncomfortable being the person who held more power in the relationship. I have been on the other side of the equation, and was honestly fairly okay with it most of the time. It hurt sometimes, sure, but overall I made the decision that I would rather be with the person than without, regardless of whether they loved me as much as I loved them.

What it comes down to is that we are the best people to decide for ourselves what we can or cannot handle in a relationship. If someone is okay with being in something fairly one-sided with you, your only responsibility is to not take advantage of that fact to manipulate them or hurt them on purpose. If you’re uncomfortable with the situation, absolutely get out—but it’s okay to acknowledge that that’s for yourself, not them. I sometimes think that we’re over-socialized to believe that it’s not okay to be selfish in a relationship. That’s fine to an extent, but it’s also important to remember that you’re allowed to have wants and needs. You don’t owe anyone a relationship, and you don’t owe anyone a breakup (unless they’re the one breaking up with you, obviously—then you absolutely have to respect their wishes).

You’re doing just fine. Don’t second guess yourself on this—we talk about love being an addiction, and in a way that’s true, but I don’t think it means a person is so impaired that they can’t make their own decisions. That veers dangerously close to “crime of passion” territory. Your partner was a consenting adult, and it was completely fine to let them make their own choices.

I’ve said it before, but every romantic relationship eventually ends in a breakup or a death. Jaded? Maybe. Accurate? Absolutely. Opening yourself up to someone means accepting the risk that comes with putting your heart on the line. Ultimately, it’s every person’s own choice whether that’s a risk they think is worth it.

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask A Helping Han #8: Loaning Money To People You Love

First off, I want to apologize to everyone for how long it's been since I updated! I was having a major mental blockage about putting my thoughts down in writing. I'm going to try to catch up on my inbox ASAP. I'm sorry to those of you who have been waiting for answers! You're fabulous and I appreciate you. And now, without further ado, on with the show!

 

Dear Han,

I'm about six months out of an emotionally and financially draining relationship. While I don't make much money as a teacher, my partner had much less financial stability moving from one freelance writing job to the next, and I found myself supporting him, with the expectation that he'd pay me back when he could. Rent, bills, groceries, entertainment, trips, I covered it all.

My biggest mistake was not keeping track of what all he owed me. He kept an itemized list, but I don't know what it amounted to. At the very least I know he owes me two months of rent. When I attempt to bring this up to him, he says I am a shitty and vindictive person looking to harp on our difficult past. However, money owed is not simply a past problem; the rent money alone would've helped me tremendously. 

I'm at a loss. I'm in a financial bind as a result of this relationship, and I can't bring it up without being verbally attacked. I know he is unable to pay me back at the moment, but the assumption that he shouldn't have to "because I was his partner" is perhaps the most offensive part of this all when I know he wouldn't put a friend in this situation. What should I do?

At a Loss

 

Dear At a Loss,

I'm so sorry you're in this situation. I'm also sorry that I don't have a great solution on how to get your money back.

A piece of advice I've seen repeated over and over again in my years of advice column addiction is "don't loan money that you couldn't afford to give as a gift." The reasoning for this is twofold. 1) Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, a lot of people who are lent money by friends or family will never pay it back. This can happen for a myriad of reasons: their circumstances don't change, their circumstances DO change but for the worse, or sadly, sometimes they just don't want to. Regardless, there's always a chance that you'll never get your money back. 2) Trying to get a loan repaid ruins relationships. If, for whatever reason, the loanee can't or won't pay the loan back in a timely manner (or at all), bitterness, recrimination, guilt, and feelings of uneven power dynamics can all come into play in really destructive ways. Loaning money to people you care about is SO TEMPTING. They've got a problem, you've got a solution, and you want to stop their suffering. I totally get the compulsion. But if you can't afford to gift the money, and not getting it back is going to cause YOU problems, you shouldn't lend it. 

This idea is pretty straightforward in theory, but in practice, it can get super sticky. This is especially true in situations like yours, where the person you're lending money to is your partner. I'm assuming you lived together, in which case just not paying the rent because he couldn't cover his half was not a super great option. Also, it would feel petty and terrible to do things like buy groceries for yourself and not feed him if he genuinely couldn't afford to feed himself. I really, really understand how you got here. Unfortunately, undoing the financial fallout is unlikely to be super feasible.

The fact that you got out of the relationship is really good. I'm so glad that you managed to do that for yourself. Regarding getting your money back, however, I'm afraid you may be out of luck. I don't know how much legal recourse is possible in a situation like this (any readers with legal expertise, please feel free to chime in!) and if I'm right that it's not much, you're pretty much dependent on his good will to get paid back - and it doesn't sound like he has any. I'd consider at least consulting with an attorney to see what your options are; it's possible that if he was on the lease, you can at least hold him responsible for that portion of what's owed. Things like groceries and travel, however, I suspect are going to be a total loss.

Again, I'm so sorry this happened to you. I wish I had better advice for you. Good luck with everything, and I hope you are able to bounce back financially. Being penalized for caring for people is super shitty.

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

 

Ask A Helping Han #7: Navigating Emotionally Draining Careers in Personal Relationships

Dear Han,

My partners and I are all early in our careers as a social worker, a lawyer, and a therapist (this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? I assure you, it is not, even though we HAVE all walked into a bar). I’ve been with one partner for six years, one for three, and they have become very close in the last two years and consider themselves best friends.

By nature of our professions, all three of us spend all day dealing with other people’s problems. We’re all emotionally exhausted and mentally drained by the end of every day, which is starting to impact our relationship(s). How do we balance doing our jobs, taking care of ourselves, and taking care of each other? Please send help!

Signed,
I won’t make you use Matt’s high fantasy name, even in writing!

 

Dear Non-Fantasy Name,

This is so real that it hurts, and also can be super hard to navigate. Working in a helping field can be so fulfilling, and can help give you a sense of purpose and make you feel less useless in the face of what often feels like a cruel and unjust world. It is unfortunately, however, also exhausting as fuck. Pair that with the dueling needs of wanting to take care of your partners but also be taken care of, and shit gets stressful.

Since you all work in fields that are heavy on communication, I'm sure this isn't a new idea to you, but I think the number one thing that is essential to maintaining balance and support between the three of you is being super open about when you do and don't have the emotional energy to be each other's sounding boards. Try setting up set chunks of time that are for venting about work. Or, conversely, try setting up times that are specifically work-talk-free. Give yourselves some rules. Have an emotional safe word that any of you can use if you're unable to take on your partner or friend's stress at any given time. Have discussions about how each of you handle your stress—do you need to talk it out? Just vent? Have a physical outlet? Completely turn off your brain for awhile with TV or video games or reading? Not everyone handles their stress in the same ways, so if you make assumptions about what your partners need from you, you could very easily be making things harder for yourselves.

The bottom line is talk, regularly, about your needs. Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself when you don't have the energy to be someone's support. Take turns taking on the burdens. And when you're all too exhausted and drained to be there for each other, remember that your partners/BFFs can not be your only support—that's way too much to ask of a person. Call your mom, have drinks with another friend, see a therapist on your own—just find another outlet. 

The world is a shitty, shitty place sometimes, but you got together with these people because you think they're great. Do the things with them that you enjoy doing together, try to respect each other's boundaries and needs, and just do your best. You've got this.

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #6: Privacy and Pronouns During Gender Transition

Dear Han,

Just yesterday, my close AMAB friend, "S", told our friend group that they were transitioning to female. S is in the early stages of their transition and has told us that we can still use he-series pronouns or they-series pronouns as well as their birth name, but will eventually be switching to she-series pronouns and a different name when they start hormonal therapy. "S" is currently only out to some friends and their girlfriend, so we're keeping this information on the DL for now.

I am 100% supportive of S's transition and want to do my best to properly gender them going forward. I don't think this will be a problem most of the time, but I am not sure how to address S in the third person. When I'm talking about S to people they may not be out to, or when I'm talking to people who don't know S personallylike when I'm on the phone with my momhow should I gender them? Is it better to stick to their assigned gender so I do not accidentally out them or to use they-series pronouns that may raise some eyebrows but would properly gender S? Part of me just thinks "Oh use they-series, no one will notice and it's accurate to S's identity", but they other part of me thinks "People will immediately pick up on this pronoun switch and realize S is transitioning!".  Am I just WAY overthinking this and is their a simple answer?

This is not the first time this has been a question of mineam I just missing a simple solution here?

Thanks, Han!

Love,

I Don't Want to Misgender You OR Out You!

 

Dear IDWTMYOOY (WOW that’s an acronym!),

You rock for wanting to both respect S’s identity and also their privacy! I’m going to give you a really short answer here: since S has said that either “he” or “they” series pronouns are fine for the moment, continue to use “he” series with people who you aren’t sure are in the loop. As long as S has given you permission to do so, this is 100% okay! When S is ready to use “she” series pronouns, they’ll let you know— but for now, it’s perfectly okay to take the path of least resistance. It’s not unsupportive to use pronouns that S has explicitly stated are fine for the time being. You are not closeting them by respecting their preferences.

General rule: use whatever pronouns someone asks you to use to their face when you are referring to them in the third person, unless they explicitly ask you to do otherwise. If presented with options, err on the side of not outing someone. Sending you hugs for being a solid ally, and thank you for a question with a reasonably straightforward answer!

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #5: Bowing Out of Weight Loss Bullying

Dear Han,

I’m a cis woman married to an amazing woman. She has struggled with mental illness during the course of our relationship and marriage, and takes antidepressants to help. These have caused her to gain weight. I love her no matter what she looks like, but her body image has been a big source of her struggles over the years. In her previous relationship, her ex would tell her she had gained weight and intentionally make her jealous by praising attractive women who didn’t look like her. She’s asking me to do the same for her as a motivation to help her lose weight. Han, I’m incredibly uncomfortable emotionally abusing my wife as motivation. I’ve expressed this to her and made it clear I’m happy to support her weight loss endeavors in a healthy way, but she seems upset by this. How can I help?

Sincerely,

Trying to be a loving wife

 

Dear Loving Wife,

Oof, this is a really tough situation. I absolutely understand your discomfort with being purposely abusive to your wife to “help” her with her weight loss. I completely understand her urge to take the weight back off—while I’m very vocal in my hatred of the "skinny-equals-morally-superior" narrative that our culture is so deeply imbued with, I also know how hard it can be to watch your body change in ways that make you feel uncomfortable in your skin. This is especially rough when these changes are the results of medical treatments that are supposed to be making you *better* in some way.

As a personal anecdote, I put on a significant amount of weight my freshman year of college due to a combination of going on birth control and taking a mental med that inhibited my ability to feel full. I still remember screaming when I found out about it (I was… not great at reading up on potential side effects) something along the lines of “WHO THE FUCK THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO PUT A DEPRESSED TEENAGER WITH BAD SELF ESTEEM ON A MEDICATION THAT WOULD MAKE THEM FAT?!” But I digress.

I 100% believe that you should stick to your guns on not trying to make your wife feel bad about herself in order to support her weight loss. I recommend going back to her and seeing if she’s willing to have a conversation with you about it again. “Hey, I know that this is a thing that has worked for you in the past, but I just really can’t bring myself to treat you in a way that I don’t think is ethical just to help you lose weight. I’m 100% on board to help you put together healthy meal plans, cook together, go exercise together, or just hold you accountable when you make those plans for yourself—but I’m not going to compare you to other people or tell you I don’t love the way you look.” If your wife really needs someone to bully her into losing weight, she can always sign up for a boot camp-style fitness class—those people will yell at you plenty, and you can pay them for it!

I hope that with some conversation, your wife will understand that it’s unfair for her to ask you to do something that makes you profoundly uncomfortable to support her weight loss goals. You can stock up on healthy recipes, try to keep junk food out of your house, and suggest physical activities to do together instead of drinking or Netflix binging if you want to be able to help in a productive way. But just because her ex was “willing” to be mean to her to make her work harder, that does not mean you are obligated to participate. There are ways to be supportive other than negging, and hopefully your wife will realize that.

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #4: The Improv Conundrum

Dear Han,

I have a background in theatre.  During the height of my acting activities in college, I started to worry that I was annoying my non-theatre friends by asking them to see me in show after show.  I also didn't want to risk disappointment if my good friends didn't show up.  I eventually stopped asking them to come.

Since college, I have gotten a "day job" and stayed involved in theatre doing behind-the-scenes work.  Two years ago, I joined an improv team and have really been enjoying it.  It satisfies my need to perform at a time when I don't have the time to commit to attending nightly rehearsals or memorizing a script.

We perform for the public several times a year.  Of course, we are trying to build our audience.  We advertise shows through Facebook, flyers, and some other venues, but our audience is still small.  I try to help by inviting my local friends to the Facebook event and telling them about the next show when I see them in person.  Now, the old worry is starting to creep back that I am annoying them by asking them to see the show.  I am aware that improv is the butt of many jokes.  For some people, "Can you come to my improv show?" is as welcome an invitation as "Can you come to my multi-level marketing scheme party?"  I wouldn't expect people to come to EVERY show.  Hopefully, they would tell friends and family about it and we'd get a greater following through word-of-mouth.  But of course, I love performing and want people to see me doing something I'm good at.

How do I handle asking friends to come to a performance, and letting them know it would make me happy to see them there, when that performance is a recurring event?  How do I do this without pestering them?

Signed,

185 Advice Letters Walk Into A Bar . . .
 

Dear 185,

Congratulations on getting involved in improv! It sounds like it’s been a very positive experience for you.

Living in New York City, I have a lot of friends involved in various artistic endeavors that may or may not be interesting to the larger public. So many facebook invitations come in to see someone’s comedy act or improv show or a capella group or whatever that they largely become white noise. I might feel a twinge of guilt as I hit “ignore” on the invitation, but I justify it to myself by thinking “well, if they’ve invited enough people that it says ‘ignore’ instead of ‘can’t go’ on the RSVP, they probably just invited everyone they know—so they won’t notice if I’m there or not.” There have been, however, a handful of times that I’ve pulled my homebody, introvert self together enough to venture out and See A Thing. Invariably, this has happened because someone reached out to me personally to say “hey, I’m doing A Thing and I think you would really enjoy it. It would mean a lot to me if you came!”

You say you worry about annoying people, and it’s super considerate of you to take that into account. However, at four shows per year, I think you’re probably fine—I’ve blocked people from being able to send me event invites on Facebook all of twice, and it was because they were sending multiple invitations weekly to everyone they knew, and we weren’t close. There’s a big difference between inviting your entire social network to weekly events and inviting a few people who you think would actually be interested to something every few months. That said, I highly recommend the personal approach. It doesn’t have to be face-to-face; a Facebook message or email or text is totally acceptable.

Additionally, I encourage you to really give thought to who you invite: do you have friends that are into comedy or regularly go to performing arts/theater events? They’re a likelier bet than someone who’s heretofore shown no interest in those kinds of things. Are there people who it would actually mean a lot to you to have there, versus casual acquaintances? Stick with them. Also, pay attention to people’s cues—if you invite them a few times and they’re unresponsive, let it drop. Not everyone’s going to be up for it, and you’ll save yourself a lot of hurt feelings if you don’t keep inviting people who are going to say no.

Look, I’m going to be straight with you—your improv troupe is unlikely to develop a following of its own. Most people who go to improv shows do so because they either a) know someone in the cast, or b) are also improv performers. There are a handful of exceptions, but they’re generally the bigger deal, longer standing troupes that are considered feeders into the SNLs of the world: Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, etc. This is disappointing, but it’s also freeing—you don’t have to try to build a long term audience for your group, just invite the people who you’d truly love to have see you perform, and who you think would have a good time.

Best of luck to you!

Love,

Han

 

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #3: Creative Imposter Syndrome

Dear Han,

Recently, I started a short and casual online writing programme designed to build people's confidence and get them writing creatively again. It's only been a few days, but it's been a great experience so far, and my initial terror is starting to give way to something a bit more like nervous excitement.

The problem is that I feel like such a fraud.

I'm not in a creative profession. When I was in school and university, I leaned pretty heavily to the humanities but I shifted direction in my professional life and went into accounting and management. I now work in the finance team of a large international charity. I like my job, but other than some casual bits of amateur dramatics, I haven't felt able to pursue creative interests in many years.

Something I'm particularly struggling with is that I write in a few very different styles. I might write something silly and cheerful about a witch with a taste for sparkly rainbow hats one day, and the next day go for something firmly on the bleaker side of the weird-spectrum. It feels really inconsistent, and I worry that it's not how you're supposed to do things.

I'm just a dabbler, so ultimately it doesn't really matter, but I don't want to stop writing. It is, in many ways, such a joy to start writing againbut I keep second-guessing myself, and I can see myself talking myself out of it entirely. Again.

How can I start to build and believe in my own creativity? How do I stop feeling like a fraud for doing any creative writing at all, even when it's just for myself?

Thanks!

Writer or Fraudster? 

 

Dear Writer,

My dear, you have come to the right place on this one! As a former art major turned nonprofit administrative employee, I have also stumbled down the road from creative to practical on my educational and career path. The good news is, you are not in any way a fraud! You don’t have to have a creative job to deserve to be creative—we all need to pay the bills, and in any case, some of us aren’t temperamentally suited to the chaotic nature of creative fields. Despite what the broader cultural narrative may tell you, there is no “correct” way to pursue your creative impulses—especially if you’re doing them for your own enjoyment, and not as a potential way of supporting yourself.

The arts—whether visual, musical, performing, or written—provide us value in so many ways. Some of them are readily consumable by the general public, and provide their audiences with new ways of seeing, feeling, or thinking. Some exist to push boundaries. Some exist to create beauty in the world. Some of them we make just for ourselves, to exercise those parts of our imaginations that need a good stretch every once in awhile. You don’t have to be writing the next great American (or British or German or whatever) novel to be allowed to write. You just have to enjoy writing.

As for committing to a style, I, for one, find it highly overrated. In academic programs, you’re often pushed to find your “true” voice or style in your art. I firmly believe that in art, as in life, we contain multitudes. I myself am a writer, an artist, a musician, a baker, and a craft enthusiast. I’ve written humor and heartache, personal essays and historical fiction. I’ve painted in oils and in watercolor everything from portraits to landscapes to abstractions. I’ve played piano and French horn, and I’ve sung in show choirs and classical ensembles. I knit, I draw, I sculpt. I do none of these things with any exceptional level of talent—most of them I’d say I am competent at, at best. Generally speaking, I complete about 7% of the projects I start (this figure is not in any way mathematically derived), and never in a timely manner. Once upon a time, this got me down—could I really claim to be an artist or writer when I never finished a painting or a story? Ultimately though, I realized that it didn’t matter. I wasn’t creating for anyone else; I was doing it because I enjoyed doing it. Because I had an idea in my head that was just itching to materialize. Most of the time, once I’d let it out, I was done with it; it wasn’t about the finished product, it was about the process.

Keep going to your workshop. Enjoy the hell out of your writing. Follow whatever thread strikes your fancy, see where it leads you, and if you get bored with it, let it go and find another one. There is no correct way to create. You don’t have to earn the right to do it. Keep on keeping on, and give zero fucks what anyone else may think about it. Maybe you will write a great novel some day, or maybe you’ll just end up with a notebook full of beautiful vignettes that it brought you joy to write. Do this for you, because you love doing it. If you stop loving it, stop doing it. But it’s your right to create as much as you want to for as long as it makes you happy.

Love,

Han

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #2: How to Handle Conflicting Mental Health Needs

Dear Han,

This year, my best friend of 13 years showed up to a party at my house a complete mess, with visible self-harm wounds. She lives across the country, and was in town for this event. I was shocked, as I haven't seen self-harm wounds on her before. She then got pretty drunk and proceeded to berate me for being a bad friend, not noticing how depressed she was, and not committing to our friendship the way she wanted. I was, of course, appalled. Long story short, we have since become much closer; I helped her find a therapist, talked to her about my own mental illness, and apologized for not seeing how much she was hurting. Our relationship has greatly improved since then, and we have both apologized for perceived wrongs. She is now in therapy and on medication and is doing better than I have seen her in years. That being said, she is still in a very delicate place emotionally. I know how this feels, so I want to proceed carefully.

Here’s the thing: she is constantly late. Like. Very late. She's basically nocturnal, and doesn't realize that people cannot always work around this schedule when she is in town. This holiday season, she kept me waiting for an hour and a half after our meeting time, because she "just couldn't get moving after she woke up" (at 3 pm; we were meant to meet at 6:30 pm). The following day she was supposed to come to my home, and was four hours later than planned because she overslept. Mind you, she did not set an alarm to make sure she woke up on timeand this was a behavior she had before she was depressed. To complicate matters, lateness is very emotionally triggering for me. it sends my anxiety rocketing and can lead to full panic attacks. I feel like I cannot confront her about this, because her mental health is so delicate right now, and her major criticism of me is that I am "mean" to her when things don't go my way; a specific example of meanness she has brought up is when I've snapped at her for doing things like being four hours late. Should I try and talk to her about this? She has anxiety about leaving her house and her comfort space, but I have anxiety about not sticking to plans. How can we balance our respective terrible brains?

Thanks,

Anxious and Off Balance

 

Dear Anxious,

Ahhh, the constant excitement of trying to balance various people’s mental illnesses! I do think this is worth addressing with your friend, and I actually think you can be pretty straightforward. The key is discussing it not at a time when it has just happened and you’re upset about it, but instead at a time when you’re calm and can bring it up in a way that hopefully won’t be interpreted as “mean.” Potential script:

“Hey friend, can I talk to you about something? I’ve been hesitant to bring this up because I don’t want to upset you, but I feel like discussing it is better than just silently stewing. The past few times we’ve had plans, you’ve been anywhere from an hour to four hours late. I know that when you’re having a rough time, you struggle with getting yourself going, and I understand that—but the thing is, it makes me incredibly anxious when things don’t happen on the schedule they’re supposed to; sometimes it even triggers panic attacks. If we make plans to hang out at a certain time, I’d really like it if you’d make an effort to actually be there when we agreed on. Is that something you can work on? I love spending time with you, but it really stresses me out when I have to spend hours sitting around wondering if you’re going to show up or not.”

If she tries again to frame this as you “getting your own way,” it’s extremely fair to push back—the plans that you are making are being decided by both of you, so if she wants to make the plans for later in the day, she needs to say so up front. If this were up to, say, half an hour late, I would tell you to cut her some slack—but hours late is extremely disrespectful of you and your time, and it’s okay to say so.

I also want to note that just because your friend is struggling doesn’t mean that you have to let her do whatever she wants. Between her being mad at you for not noticing her depression (that she didn’t tell you about) while she lived across the country and her calling you mean for communicating your needs to her, she sounds like she has pretty unreasonable and one-sided expectations of your friendship. I’d urge you to consider just how much catering to her you’re willing to do. It sounds like you’ve jumped through hoops to help her get the help she needs, and rather than be appreciative, she’s mad that you would have any expectations of her at all. Maybe take some time to think about whether this friendship is really working for you before you keep going out of your way to keep her mental health stable at the expense of your own.

Love,

Han

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.

Ask a Helping Han #1: Dealing with Trump Supporting Parents

Dear Han,

I’ve been mulling over an issue I’ve had with my family for over a year now, and I still don’t know how to proceed. I have three sisters (one of whom is very similar to myself, ideologically, while the other two are in line with my parents) and my parents. In a specific context, my parents are wonderful people. They are kind, generous, and loving—but in a classic Christian conservative kind of way (e.g. they give to their church to help the poor, but don’t like that the government takes taxes to support social programs). Growing up, the rule was always “don’t talk about politics” for two reasons: 1) it was assumed that everyone was in agreement and 2) it was assumed that “it’s just politics” and therefore wasn’t very important. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve swung way to the left politically and have become about as liberal as it’s possible to be. This didn’t really come up with my family until 2016. My sister and I asked my parents not to vote for Trump, but they did. It devastated meI thought my parents were good enough people to realize how terrible he was, but they’ve fallen for every thing Fox News tells them. I used to speak to my mom every week to catch up on family stuff; I’ve only spoken to them 3-4 times total since the election. I don’t know what to do. I dream (literally, I have had several dreams along these lines) of reconciling with them, of them understanding what hurt they’ve caused…but I don’t know how to get there from here. Going back to how it was (i.e. not discussing politics) is possible, but feels like a compromise of my values. Never speaking to them again is possible but hurts to contemplate. Any advice for a middle ground?

Thanks,

Heldraga the Unseen

 

Dear Heldraga,

Unfortunately, you are far from alone in this conundrum. A lot of people have been having to reckon with the toxic politics of people they love over the past year. The ideological divide in our country has probably never been wider or harder to ignore. For a long time, people were able to hide their conservative or liberal leanings behind the idea of “big government versus small government”but this is no longer what our two main political parties stand for. The Republicans don’t want small government, they want (and are making blatant grabs for) all of the money, all of the power, and control over the choices of others based on their pseudo-religious, puritanical views of how people should livewhich are based less on religion, and more on trying to keep old rich white men in control. This makes conversations about politics both easier and harder to haveon the one hand, it’s easier to make a case for good versus evil, but on the other hand, the arguments are so much more rooted in our core sense of selves that it’s impossible for them not to get emotionaland everyone loves to dismiss an emotional argument.

Have you had a conversation with your parents about whether they still support Trump? I feel like this might be a good place to start. I think it’s possible to frame your conversation with them around the things that he’s done that are antithetical to the cores of Christian beliefs, which might help them understand where you’re coming from. Potential script incoming:

“Hi Mom. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t been calling as much this year. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been really struggling to reconcile the wonderful people that I know you and Dad are with your support for our current president. So much of what he’s done over this past year has gone against the way you raised meto be a kind, generous person who takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves. This administration has done so much harm alreadybreaking up families, taking healthcare away from childrenthat it hurts me to think that you would condone this. I wanted to talk to you to hear your thoughts on whether you still support him, and why you think it’s okay for him to treat people this way. I know this is an upsetting conversation to haveit’s really hard for me, too. I love you so much, but I’m scared for what will happen to our country if good people like you are willing to look the other way while our president leaves vulnerable people to die. Can you help me understand?”

I can’t guarantee that this conversation will lead to anything positiveyou may end up with very affronted parents. It’s possible that they won’t talk to you for awhile. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll give them something to think about. I think that the people we love, who we know to be good people at their core, are the ones we need to try the hardest to sway in their beliefs if we ever want to swing our country back away from where it’s headed. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d rather try and fail than not try at all.

Love,

Han

Have a question for Han? Email askahelpinghan@gmail.com.