Q: I’m sober, but my boyfriend smokes pot. I’m fine with that, but I don’t want him smoking in the house. He says it’s his house, too, so I’m not being fair. Plus, it’s cold in the rural area where we live and rains a lot, so he’d have to put on a jacket, go on the porch, etc., to smoke. I get it, but I hate the smell, and I don’t want to go to 12-step meetings smelling like weed. That’s just not right. Help.—Upset Girlfriend
A: Surprisingly, the road to respect and good standing in the 12-step world does not involve strolling into meetings smelling like you live in a one-bedroom bong. Your taking care not to show up all “I just took a bath in Chanel No. 420!” at 12-step meetings, lest you trigger any recovering potheads, is what I call “empathy in action.” I write in my science-based manners book, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, that empathy—caring about how your behavior affects others—is “at the root of manners.”
Rudeness, on the other hand, is the lack of consideration for what one’s behavior does to another person. I explain it as a form of theft, theft of “valuable intangibles like people’s attention (in the case of cell phone shouters who privatize public space as their own).” In this case, there’s the theft of your reputation in a group that’s an integral part of your life (and maybe even of your sobriety).
Somebody reading this might make the argument, “Ha, dummy—wouldn’t empathy involve her caring about how her ‘no toking in the house’ thing affects her boyfriend?” Well, yes. But generally speaking, the person whose behavior changes an environment, in negative ways for others in it, is the one who needs to bear the burden of whatever they’re doing. This is why considerate people have long asked others, “Mind if I smoke?” rather than expecting others to ask, “Mind if I breathe?”
And let’s have a look at the level of “burden” here: Oh, boo-hoo, might your boyfriend sometimes have to put on a parka to smoke some weed? Put both arms into the sleeves and everything? You could try to fire up some empathy in Pol Pot–head by explaining that coming into 12-step meetings smelling like you just smoked a bowl is embarrassing on the level of strolling in swigging from a big bottle of Jim Beam. (Of course, it’s also completely understandable to want to live in a place that doesn’t reek of reefer.)
You might also consider whether his stubbornness on this points to a bigger issue, a general lack of generosity and/or interest in your happiness. We are self-interested mofos, but when we love somebody, we’ll often set aside our immediate self-interest and do what’s best for them. And because we love them, it ultimately benefits us to benefit them. This is why you see people do extraordinary things for the ones they love: Donate a kidney! Build the Taj Mahal! Move to the jungle for a year so they can do their anthro fieldwork! And then there’s your boyfriend, all “Honey, you’ll just need to stand outside a window and participate in your meeting from there: ‘Hi, my name is Belinda, and I’m an alcoholic . . . who’s about to be mauled by a bear.’”
Q: I’m tired of being angry at my ex-boyfriend. My best friend suggested I write an email to him, saying everything I want to say, but send it to her instead. It seemed like a bad idea, delving into those feelings even more, but I did it anyway. Miraculously, I felt much better afterward. A fluke?—Puzzled
A: I get it: You were all, “Write a letter he’ll never read? Um, I wasn’t dating Santa.” However, psychologist James Pennebaker finds that writing about upsetting events in our lives can act as a sort of mental crime scene cleanup, in a way that simply thinking about these events or venting emotions does not.
Pennebaker theorizes that the process of organizing your thoughts to write them down coherently leads you to reinterpret and make sense out of what happened, thus diminishing the power of the events to keep upsetting you. Accordingly, Pennebaker’s research suggests you could speed your healing by using what I’d call “explainer” words, such as “because” or “caused” as well as insight words (like “understand” and “realize”).
The research also suggests it may help to do this writing thing more than once, even repeatedly. So you might want to keep hammering out those emails about him as long as you continue to have strong feelings about him, like, say, the recurring idea that he should part his hair down the middle. Ideally with an axe.
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