Cheryl and Steve are no longer dishing out new advice, but we're listening back to episodes we love every week. This episode was originally released September 30th, 2016.
The Sugars bring you another "rapid fire" episode, where they give brief answers to a handful of letters. This time, they challenge each other to make the call — one way or the other — on the questions they're discussing, rather than offer open-ended guidance.
I’m a 23-year-old woman dating a 26-year-old man. We started dating about a year ago, despite us being two very different people. You see, I come from a much more liberal background and a mother who taught me the importance of being strong and independent. My boyfriend comes from a conservative small town and was raised by a much stricter, bible-reading household. For the most part, these differences help us grow. We both love the outdoors, and we’ve gone on many adventures in our year of being together. Up until about four months ago, things were perfect. Then, my boyfriend made a huge lifestyle change and basically said I had to make that change with him or I could leave.
When we first started dating we were sexually intimate, but then he decided that he couldn't keep having sex outside of marriage because of his religious beliefs. At first, I was angry and didn't understand. I believe sexual intimacy is a strong and important part of a relationship. I need to feel both emotionally and physically close to the man I'm dating. In spite of this, I agreed to no longer have sex because I didn't want to ask him to compromise his value system. I tried to understand where he was coming from, being a Christian myself, but far too often I'm filled with resentment. Since we stopped having sex, there have been many screaming matches and make ups.
For the record, not having sex has made me no closer to God. I love everything about my boyfriend, and I could honestly see myself marrying him in the future. But some days the resentment is just too much, and I wonder it’s worth it to stay together. Sugar, does resentment ever really go away? What do I do if I feel like my values are now being compromised?
Cheryl Strayed: Stuck, I think you should break up with your boyfriend. I think you should have a conversation with him first about how important sex is to you and how important that kind of intimacy is in a relationship, and give him the opportunity to rethink his position and meet you in the middle. If you’re boyfriend’s not willing to do that, I think that you’ve already answered your own question. You said that you believe sexual intimacy is a strong and important part of a relationship, and your boyfriend has told you that he’s not going to give you that. Your boyfriend essentially gave you no options, and so I think your resentment will only grow. I think that you need to make a choice that feels good for you, and my advice is to end this relationship if he maintains that stance.
Steve Almond: This is a preview of a set of arguments that are going to happen over and over again in your marriage. The question is, can you negotiate these fundamentally different value systems, or are the strictures that he puts on them going to cause you to be resentful two years from now, four years from now, 20 years from now — how the children are raised, what the spiritual practice in the house is going to be, etc. This is your opportunity to figure out whether you guys can work together and both find happiness within a shared value system that isn’t just his. He’s got to be able to bend on this.
Cheryl: The other thing, Stuck, is I would be paying attention to the fact that he went through this radical change — from having sex, to suddenly saying “no sex because I’m a Christian.” Now, Stuck, you said you’re a Christian too, but what any Christian knows is that there are all kinds of ways of to be Christian. He’s interpreting his religion in a really different way than you interpret your own, and that’s a big deal. And in fact, I would say that’s a bigger deal than whether you’re having sex or not. So this is evidence of a real divide between the two of you that you may, or may not, be able to bridge, but it’s certainly not going to go away.
I am a 23-year-old woman and recently finished college. I'm in the middle of so many life transitions — moving towns, transitioning into a career, taking on my own bills. I thought all of this change was the real reason I found myself in a weird, unhappy haze. But all at once it became clear to me that the real reason I felt this way is because I’ve been denying one important truth: I’m a lesbian. This is something that I'm really struggling with — not because I'm ashamed, and not because I’m afraid of telling my parents. What I’m struggling with is telling my best friends.
These girls have been like family to me for nearly a decade. They’re the loves of my life, my friendship soulmates — except for the fact that they’re homophobic.
My question isn't if I should tell them — it's how. I don’t even know where to begin with all of this. I’m afraid of losing them.
Questioning and Questioning
Steve: It’s clear to me that you need to be quite honest with them. Prejudice thrives on abstraction. Everybody can hate “thus and such” until somebody important in their lives says, “You know what? I’m ‘thus and such. That’s who I am. I figured it out.’” It’s so interesting, Questioning and Questioning, the language you used to describe these women: The “loves of my life,” my “soulmates.” They occupy the emotional and psychological real estate we often associate with lovers. Every fear contains a wish. The idea that you would lose these friendships within that fear might be the desire to find a set of friendships that both give you the kind of affirmation you need from a friendship, but also accept who you truly are.
Cheryl: I think that the way to tell them, Questioning and Questioning, is to simply tell them. You can even confront their homophobia directly and say, “Listen, I know you have a negative view of people who are gay, but here I am, I love you, and I hope that you’ll continue to love me.” And if they don’t, it really isn’t your loss. As much as you love these people, you don’t need people to love you for the facade that you present to them. You need people to love you for who you really are. That love is there and it’s available. I know this for certain.
In two weeks, I will be officially divorced. We met at our university — he was in undergrad, I was in graduate school — and got married less than a month after graduation. While the relationship had been a happy one during college, it became clear early on that we simply weren't ready for marriage. The most difficult aspect of my divorce has been in dealing with the hurt I caused his family. This is especially true when it came to his grandmother. In fact, the only time I cried during the divorce process was when I thought of how much it hurt her. I loved her and the rest of his family with the very core of my being, and for a long time, stuck out the marriage just because I didn't want to cause them any grief.
Lately, I've been thinking about writing letters to both his grandmother and my former in-laws to apologize. I don't want to try to explain myself or justify the divorce, but I do want them to know that my decision to leave was not only for my best interest, but for their son and grandson as well. I want them to know that I love them and appreciate how they opened their family to me. I want them to know how sorry I am for bringing heartache into their family, and how I never intended our marriage would play out this way.
I haven't spoken to them since my ex-husband and I decided to divorce, but I don't want to leave my relationship with them without acknowledging how much it meant to me.
Should I write to them, Sugars? Or would it only hurt them further?
Cheryl: Absolutely, Ex-Daughter-In-Law, you should write to them. It wouldn’t hurt them further. You’re writing to them to acknowledge the true bond that you shared and the love you have for them, and really, the best wishes you have for their family, including your ex-husband. I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, and you should do it. I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s a very painful part of divorce — you divorce your spouse’s family, as well. And there was a reckoning we had about a year or two after my ex-husband and I broke up. I called my ex-mother-in-law and we had a really loving conversation. I think that’s a really healing thing to do, so I strongly encourage you to do it.
Steve: I think part of the problem in this relationship, Ex-Daughter-In-Law, is that you were as in love with his family, and maybe even more in love with them, than you were with your husband. The allegiance that they feel is to their son who, rightly or wrongly, they see as hurt, if not wronged, because it sounds clear from the letter that you grew away from him and called an end to the marriage. You can absolutely write to them and express these beautiful sentiments, but you can’t do it with the expectation that they will initiate a dialogue and come back into your life. Because the truth is, at a certain point in relationships, you become something bad that happened to somebody they love, and that’s a tough part of divorce or breaking up.
Cheryl: I think the piece of it that she should ponder is, what is it that she hopes to get if she writes to them? My read of her letter is that she isn’t looking for a response. She’s really wanting closure and to simply acknowledge that they did share this bond and that she does care for them, even though she has now moved on.
Steve: This is not a solvable problem. I think she does need to write that letter, but she also needs to recognize that there is a risk that all of her good, warm feelings will be painful for her ex-in-laws to absorb because it’s a reminder of a loss.
Cheryl: Perhaps, but so is her silence and her absence. I think that that has a larger presence than somebody speaking into that void and saying, “Listen, this is hard and I care for you.”
Steve: And it may be that years down the road, it is much more important both to you and meaningful to your in-laws that that love and regret of the loss of the relationship that you had wasn’t stated. So you’re right — silence is probably not the best policy.
I'm a 23-year-old medical student, and I absolutely love what I do. There is nothing that would keep me from pursuing this dream.
I've been dating a wonderful man for about a year. During that time, we’ve been incredibly happy as a couple. He is respectful, brilliant, ambitious, kind and hilarious. The problem is, he’s now in the Navy and I am the world's worst Navy girlfriend. I have a really hard time with his job involving death and killing when mine is about preserving life. On top of that, because of the way the military works, our communication has become limited, at best. We hardly get to see each other, and when we do, it’s entirely controlled by various rules that I don't understand and I’m not used to.
My heart aches constantly because I miss him so much. And it's not like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. This is how his career will largely be, and my own busy schedule with 12-18 hour days makes it even harder. It will be years before I ever get to live with him again or see him every day. I don't want to end things — he’s my best friend and the best man I've ever met — but I spend so much time missing him and worrying about his safety. I don't want to spend my life missing a man who is seldom around. My heart hurts. What do I do?
Worst Navy Girlfriend
Steve: I’m so glad that we received this letter and have the chance to answer it for the simple reason that the civilian culture in the United States and elsewhere really lives in a world where we do not recognize the burdens that are off-loaded onto military families. Not just the risk of injury or psychological trauma; it’s absence and the bureaucratic rules when you’re trying to, in this case, move towards a marriage and a stable life together, and it’s never talked about. The one thing I would step back from is the idea that your boyfriend’s job involves death and killing. The military ultimately defends the homeland, and there’s killing and injury and devastation involved with that, but it’s a very small portion of the military. More largely, you need to have a conversation with your boyfriend about whether his career is going to make it so that, for years, you are not going to be able to see him every day. There are people who know that they’re going to be “career military,” and you can say yes or no to that. But you have to get a clear account, because if you’re as important to him as he is to you, there should be some room for negotiation.
Cheryl: I think there’s sort of two questions at the heart of your letter. The first is, “Do I love my boyfriend? Am I crazy about him?” It’s clear to me that the answer is yes. But sadly, when we make decisions to really partner with another person, “Do I love him/her?” is not the only question. The other question you’re asking is, “Am I willing and emotionally able to sign up for this kind of life?” That is the journey you need to go on — both deep in your own soul and in conversation with your boyfriend. Are we both going to have careers? Is one person going to be the supporter? Is one person going to be a struggling actor? Is one person going to take a job in the military that demands this kind of life that you’ve described where he’s often gone for years on end and a huge part of your life is going to be lived without him. Worst Navy Girlfriend, I think the deepest question you’re asking us is, “Is it OK if I decide to break up with this person I love because his life is incompatible with mine?” And I’m going to say yes.
I've become a stereotype! I am insanely attracted to one of my professors. He's smart (obviously goes with the territory, but as professors go, he's GREAT), funny, interesting, talented, cute and I really want to ask him out after the semester is over. It seems like we have so much in common. But I wonder if pining after him until then is a silly waste of my time. It's extremely rare for me to be as attracted to someone as I am to him, and there's only a small age gap — I'm 23, he's 27 — so I feel like I'm letting myself hope something could happen, maybe more than I should. It sounds so silly and so trivial, but honestly, do you think it's a bad idea? Should I cut my losses and talk myself out of my attraction to him? And if I were to ask him out after final grades are in, what would be an appropriate way to do it?
Nervous but Hopeful
Cheryl: Nervous but Hopeful, I’m going to make an unpopular call. I don’t think you should ask your professor out. There’s a long-standing ethical groundwork that has been laid around this dynamic of students and teachers dating each other. I believe that you’re attracted to him. He may very well be attracted to you. But I think you need to back off and think of yourself not in an individual way, but as a category. You are a student and he is a professor. And for him to cross this ethical divide and date you, even after you specifically are no longer his student, still puts him in dangerous waters. I have friends who have married each other and how they met was one of them was the teacher and one of them was the student. So I’m not saying this is a terribly evil thing to do, but it gives me great pause because the consequences of asking this guy out can be pretty big.
Steve: I’m going to recommend you read the story “Beautiful Grade” by Lorrie Moore, which is about a professor who gets involved with one of his students, and it’s from the professor’s point of view. The age gap isn’t a deal here, Nervous but Hopeful. It’s a power thing. Professors are especially dynamic — they know things, they’re a faux parent, they’re compassionate and wise. But that professor is not who he is when he’s teaching you all the time. He’s somebody else, and I think you need to move far enough away from the teacher-student relationship that you can start to figure out who he is beyond that. If you want to ask this guy out, wait another year or two until you’re not worrying about what the appropriate way to ask him out is.
I remember reading, at some point, that you should be willing to give any money you lend to friends and family as a gift if you want to maintain that friendship or relationship. I get this. I've lived by it for a long time. However, I went against my better judgment and lent a friend a lot of money. She said she would pay me back quickly, but now it’s been almost a year. I never imagined that she would avoid the topic the way she has, but after I lent her the money, she never mentioned it again. My heart hurts when I think about it. If it were a few hundred dollars I would feel ok with the gift, but this is a big amount of money.
Should I assume that if I bring it up with her and ask her to pay me, that I am going to lose the friendship? It feels so incredibly unfair to me that this is on me. I love her and I care about her, but it's quite frankly really shitty for her to not acknowledge that I loaned her money.
I’m also wondering, why me? Why did she seek me out to ask for this large sum? Do I have "sucker" written on my forehead? How can I avoid being taken advantage of again?
I’m thinking of emailing her with the original message where she asked me for money, and promised to pay me back quickly.
What would you do?
Steve: This is a question about the conversion of shame into power. It’s not about the money; it’s about the avoidance and about the onus being on you to have to bring this up. But Burned, you have to understand your friend is not trying to hurt your feelings. She’s ashamed, and because she’s not in a financial circumstance to pay you back, she assumes you have power over her, which you didn’t ask for, but you did in consenting to this loan without meaning to. And this is why money is so complicated. It’s ultimately about power and shame in ways that we can’t anticipate when we make that well-meaning loan. I would be honest about wanting the money back and also feeling that the loan has somehow put you at odds. You ask how can I avoid being taken advantage of again, this has been your lesson. This has been your teacher — that there’s no loan that doesn’t involve this transaction of power and shame, and you’re right in the midst of somehow extracting not the money so much as the intact friendship.
Cheryl: I disagree with you about the idea that there’s no loan that doesn’t involve the transaction of power and shame. I can speak so directly to this experience, Burned, because I, over the course of the last decade, have had several loans from friends, so I’ve been on that side of the transaction. And now, over these last few years, I have given loans to friends. I have about three or four outstanding loans right now. And Burned, I’m a little bit in your situation with a couple of them. When it’s gone well, we’ve been really open about it. I have said, “I’m so ashamed that I have to ask you for this loan, and here’s when I can pay you back.” And then when it comes to pass that I can’t pay back on the schedule that I proposed, we make a new schedule. That releases the shame because then we’re talking about it. I can say to my friend, “Listen, will it put you in a pinch if I can’t pay you for another six months?” And then that friend can say yes or no, and everything’s out in the open and it isn’t shameful. Now, the flip side of that is it can also go sour, and when it goes sour is when we retreat into silence. This is all about shame. Burned, I really believe that your friend is going to pay you back and has every intention of doing so, but because she hasn’t been able to pay you back as quickly as she initially proposed, she’s embarrassed. And so she’s doing this thing that we do when we’re ashamed and embarrassed — we go into denial. We think if we don’t mention it, maybe it doesn’t exist. So the solution is to talk about it. You ask, “Is the friendship over if I ask her to pay me back?” and I would say absolutely not. The opposite is true. The friendship is over if you stay silent about this because what’s happening is you’re becoming resentful. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to give friends loans. I think it’s a bad idea to allow shame to rule the way that loan is managed. If I were you, I would write a brand new email and just say, “Hey, just checking in about that money.” And you could even say, “Look we could work out a really long-term payment plan. 25 bucks a month.” Most people can do something like that, and it adds up over time. And more importantly, it makes you feel that the loan you gave her is being valued and respected in the terms that you hoped for when you gave her the money. It feels bad now, but trust me, all it will take is that email. All it will take is that exchange, and your friend will be happy for it, too.
I'm nearing my mid-40's and am hitting my milestones pretty much on mark: bifocals, slower physical recovery, nocturnal bathroom visits and now, grey hair. I'm accepting most of this, primarily because I have no choice.
There is one of these items that's a choice, though: what to do about the grey hair. I'm not a particularly vain person, and the slippery slope of coloring doesn't appeal to me because of the cost, hassle and upkeep. I don't like the telltale grey at the scalp, and I think it's weird when people stop coloring suddenly and look completely grey. The gradual, natural transition to grey seems much more appealing.
That said, I don't want to accelerate from "young for my age" or "my age" to getting asked for the Senior Discount.
My question is: Could you help me sort through the personal and societal aspects of grey hair and give some advice on how to be at peace with whatever route I go?
I know this isn't the heart-rending conundrum that you usually address, but it's my personal conundrum. If I were grey in my 20's, the choice to color would be easy (I'd do it!), but at what point do you accept the grey as something you've earned rather than something to hide?
Counting Down from Brown
P.S. For what it's worth, my husband says he's neutral on the subject, though maybe he's just saying that to walk the even line.
Cheryl: Counting Down from Brown, you should do what you want to do. That’s the beautiful thing about tossing off these ideas about what it means to be in your 40's, or what it means to look like, as you say, “an old bag” — a term I know you meant jokingly, but that I reject. I think that the highest peak we can reach as women and as feminists is to say, “I get to choose the way I look” and define that at every age. I think that your gray hair is making you feel uncomfortable right now and maybe that means you should talk to a hair stylist and say, “What can we do to make me feel good about the way my hair looks right now?” You say that this is a little question, and yet, it’s also a pretty big one. I think that so many people, men and women alike, struggle with this as we age. I think the sexiest, most beautiful thing emanates from within, and it’s that sense of you feeling secure in who you are, whether that be gray-haired or completely dyed whatever color of your choosing. I fully support you making whatever choice you want to make.
Steve: Counting Down from Brown, I felt all of this. I am in my late 40s, and what’s really corrosive is when people allow society and societal norms to really get internalized and to make you feel like the only two options on the menu are “young and hot” and “old bag.” I think you should do what you want to do, but I also would counsel you to think really carefully about what Cheryl said. If you are beautiful, it’s because you love yourself, you love how you look and you have made peace with it. There’s no product that’s going to undo a problem if you don’t feel that way. You’re just going to be chasing it forever.
I have been very close friends with a man for a little over a decade and have shared a deep non-romantic intimacy that has been a precious part of my life. Recently, he announced out of the blue that he needed a break from our friendship because of something someone told him about me. He said he needed time to come to terms with it. After some time passed, he told me he was ready to reconnect, but he made it clear that in order to continue our friendship, he could not disclose the nature of the information that prompted his need for a break. This has been a relationship-changing juncture, not to mention heartbreaking. I often find myself wondering about the ethical aspect of his proclamation as well as my own reluctance to continue our friendship on those terms.
What do you think?
Steve: This is bullshit. Even criminals get to face their accusers and know the charges leveled against them in a court of law. You are now deep in the court of friendship. You have a right to face the accusations against you, the nature of them, and to have a discussion about them. What he’s done is something that should never take place within a healthy, functioning friendship, which is to set himself up as judge, jury and executioner. Stay away.
Cheryl: I think it would be a very different scenario if he’d heard unflattering information about you, thought about it for a while, and then decided to disregard it and continue the friendship without you ever knowing what was going on. That’s one thing, because then he’s grappling with his own feelings about something and he’s not in any way involving you or manipulating you or punishing you. But that’s not what happened here. He told you everything except the one thing that you have the right to know: Why is he disturbed? Why is he saying, “I can’t see you for a while”? Why is he now saying, “We can be friends, but under one condition: that you never ask me for this piece of information.” Pure bullshit. This person is not a healthy, loving friend to you.