You Can Pick Your Friends, but… and Heather Better Tread Lightly
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I’ve been dating a guy for a month or so and what I thought was a one-time thing has turned into an every-meal ordeal (at least for me). He picks his teeth. Loudly. At the table. At home and in restaurants. He uses one of those little Glide picks, which I swear actually amplifies the sound. I’m not sure how to approach him on this; I feel like we haven’t known one another long enough. Could this be a dealbreaker? I’m not sure, but I feel I should do at least something to make him aware of this embarrassing habit.
Dr. Hurd replies,
Deal breaker...or opportunity? If you two are heading for a serious relationship, this is an opportunity to find out how well you can communicate about a sensitive matter. It’s a chance to test both yourself and this guy. And it’s a win-win. If you handle it well and he responds badly, you’ll know you handled his improper behavior with directness and maturity. It will only strengthen your communication skills and stand you well in a future relationship with someone who doesn’t go ballistic when criticized. If he responds well to constructive criticism, then you and he will be off to a good start in your new relationship. As with tooth picking, so too with other things.
That being said, I have to tell you that people with these habits are usually aware of them. (He arrives at the restaurant already armed with his Glide pick!) Often there’s a sense of entitlement, e.g., “I can do whatever the hell I want.” It seems unlikely that at least one person in his life hasn’t complained about it, yet he has not seen fit to change. Most people are so concerned with not ruffling feathers that they won’t ever say a word to him, although they will complain to others like you complained to me. So it might not go well. But that’s no reason for not saying anything. Dealbreaker, you ask? It’s the way he responds that will make it a dealbreaker, or the deal maker.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I am the poster child for Heather has Two Mommies. Not the actual book, of course, but it is my life nonetheless. And I adore my mom and her wife of 21 years. I grew up with them both, and I am definitely better for it. But in the process of becoming an adult, I’ve begun to observe a pattern of what I can only call emotional abuse toward my mom; little incidents where her wife insults her in front of friends, or directs critical comments toward her for no apparent reason. And my mom appears to ignore it. Is this typical of same-sex couples? Am I in a position to get in the middle of this? I feel bad for my mom, but I’m not sure how to handle this.
Dr. Hurd replies,
It’s not a same-sex couple issue; it’s an individual issue. For whatever reasons, your mother’s wife chooses to dish it out, and for whatever reasons, your mother chooses to take it. I can’t imagine that your mother doesn’t notice it. It’s possible she chooses not to acknowledge it. If you bring it up privately, she (1) might appreciate it, or (2) she might deny it or even defend her wife’s behavior.
I don’t fantasize that your mother’s wife doesn’t know what she’s doing. My experience tells me that people almost always know what they’re doing. They don’t always know why, and they’re sometimes lulled into complacency by the fact that nobody (including themselves) ever calls them on it. But in spite of what we might be told nowadays, perceptions do not alter facts. Your decision to say something to your mother should not be based on her anticipated response. More importantly, is it right to say something?
And if so, what can you say?
You have choices here. First, weigh the likely outcome of saying or not saying anything to your mother. Remember: If you choose to tell her, you’re doing this for yourself, and that’s OK. Don’t be sanctimonious or disingenuous. It should sound something like, “I’m doing this for me. I love and care about you, and felt I couldn’t be silent.” I strongly recommend you do this privately. If you tell her what you think in front of them both, you’ll only make life more difficult for your mother, and for no real gain that I can see. Chances are very good that once you say something to your mother, her wife will probably know you registered an opinion. So be ready for that. The acid test for situations like this is how well you are prepared to handle the worst-case scenario. So make sure it’s worth it.
Your mother’s wife is her choice, probably her most important life choice. Right or wrong, or whatever you think of her choice, it’s still hers to make. When you question someone’s relationship, you’re treading on dangerous territory. Tread lightly.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.