Saturday, January 4, 2014

Boundaries in Friendship

About four million years ago, we left a FFAQ poll dangling in the wind. It was a really fun one for me because in the instructions I asked people to do a silly thing in their comments, and it was interesting to see how many people picked up on it as they read the post. (Confession: I would probably have been the type of reader who missed it.)

Anyway, it's time to pick up that thread, dontcha think?

Here was the winning question, posted by Wyochick:

Most typical marriages have some sort of boundaries in regards to the opposite sex (i.e. - in our household, we consider it inappropriate for one of us to go out alone with an opposite gendered friend). How do you handle this situation in your marriage...where its your same gender that you might be attracted to, but clearly need to have some dude friends?


This is a really interesting question. It's probably a good question to explore.

One of the most frequent things people tell me as they process the fact that I am gay--like, really truly gay--is
how similar being gay is to other things. I don't really understand where this impulse comes from. I'll meet someone who has read my blog, and they'll make a specific point in telling me something like "Having the challenge of same sex attraction is just like a lot of other challenges out there. It's just like someone being addicted to alcohol, or somebody who is a kleptomaniac and can't help but steal." Sometimes they even take the comparison to "it's even like a straight man who has a really high sex drive and is tempted to be unfaithful to their spouse with other women." It usually ends with an explanation that "Sin is sin."

While I do agree that all people face challenging things in life, I disagree with people who make this type of comparison. Homosexuality is more than just a temptation. It is so much different than an addiction--there are plenty of gay people who aren't addicted to sex with their same gender. Homosexuality is way, way more complex than some vice. It isn't a "temptation" the same way being heterosexual isn't a "temptation."

It is an orientation. It's as real as a person's heterosexual orientation. 

Let's just keep it simple and talk about friendship for a moment in order to answer wyochick's question. So, in many LDS households there is a rule like the one wyochich describes: neither partner ever spends time alone with a person of the opposite gender. No lunch dates. No meetings. No grabbing a "coffee." No giving them rides. 

There is wisdom behind this rule. It does a good job of eliminating a lot of scenarios that could potentially lead a person to become infatuated with someone other than their spouse. As a marriage therapist who sees lots of couples who experience infidelity, I can tell you that being unfaithful can originate from very innocuous-seeming places: giving sympathy to a co-worker, giving rides, friending that old junior high flame on Facebook, visiting that single sister in your ward so you can help her with her water-heater, etc. When emotional infidelity occurs (not to mention physical infidelity), it is extremely traumatizing and can be terribly difficult to repair. It is heart wrenching. Reducing the risk of this occurring, even if it breeds a few awkward "I don't go out to lunch with female/male co-workers alone" type moments, is absolutely worth the trouble in my perception. So, as I go on with this post, please don't think I'm dissing on a mutually agreed upon general rule like this if both partners feel good about it. 

To answer the question though, think about it for a moment. As a gay man, where does this leave me?

Well, if I were to follow this ideal with exact precision, it would leave me very, very lonely. That's where. As a married man, I couldn't be friends with women and would have no female friends outside my marriage, and as a gay man, I couldn't be friends with men and would thus have no male friends at all besides my father and brothers, none of whom live near me. 

Thus I would remain friendless. 

It's not okay to be friendless. Human beings require deep, intimate relationships with others. A person's spouse simply cannot meet all of a person's friendship needs. Nor should they be required to try to. 

So, obviously, this is not going to work in my situation.

Plus, let's get even more specific, because we're not just talking about friendship here. 

I remember realizing one day how complicated this could become. When I was recently married and still in undergrad, I ended up studying for a final with another guy in my class. We reserved a room in the library, studied hard, and then stayed up late talking afterwards and had a good conversation. It was totally innocent and nothing untoward happened, but as I walked home, it suddenly occurred to me that if I were living to the letter of the ideal Wyochick refers to, what I had just done would have been suspect as a gay man married to a woman. And it hit me that it would have been equally suspect if I had studied alone with a woman. And then all the scenarios cascaded into my mind: to follow this rule exactly, I couldn't be alone with another person except my wife, male or female, for the rest of my life. I couldn't hold certain callings (like hometeacher) or if I had that calling, I couldn't ride with my home teaching companion to visit our families. (Home teaching is a thing in the LDS church where pairs of men visit several families in a ward to ensure their well-being and deliver a spiritual message.) I couldn't be at a presidency meeting if there were only two of us there. I couldn't get a ride to a meeting from a man or a woman. I couldn't do a lot of things that many other people wouldn't think twice about. 

Eventually I realized that this just didn't make sense. This is simply untenable. Much as one doesn't want to think of himself as the "exception" to a rule, I had to face my reality: I am an exception to this rule.

I think the result has been unexpectedly positive.

What I have had to do instead of relying on specific cultural boundaries about my interactions with the opposite sex and/or the same sex is that I have to be very thoughtful and conscientious in my interactions with everyone. I highly recommend this. I approach every interaction with a man or woman with a high level of self awareness and honesty. I have to be aware of my thoughts and feelings, as well as the potential thoughts and feelings of others, at all times. And I have to be open with Lolly about everyone I interact with.

This sounds, perhaps, like a lot of trouble, but I assure you that it has been very rewarding. Being open with Lolly about all of my friendships and relationships with others allows me to be the kind of transparent, vigilant, self-aware person I strive to be. Whereas, when a person is only relying on a strict rule-set to keep him or herself protected against feelings that would be problematic, but isn't used to being self-aware and open with spouse (and self) about what they are actually feeling, the risk for infidelity is higher than in a case like mine. (This isn't to say that I advocate anybody changing the boundaries they have set. More that I think that people should avoid using such boundaries as a protective crutch that allows them to "check-out" of their actual emotions and awareness of self. Adding a level of self-awareness and deep communication with spouse, as well as adding the ability to recognize exceptions that really qualify as exceptions, is taking this principle to a higher level in my opinion.)

Think about it this way: most people have two simple scenario sets they have to deal with. Being with people of the same gender (risk free). Being with people of the opposite gender (risky).

For me, it's so much more complicated than that. Consider the potential risks in any of the following scenarios:

Friendships with straight men.

Friendships with gay men.

Friendships with straight women.

Friendships with gay women.

I've recently realized that my lesbian friends can be some of the more rewarding friendships I have because it is the only relationship I can have with another person where there is no risk for sexual attraction on either end. There is such a peace to that--such a lack of pressure, and a calmness. It feels amazing to relate to someone with a complete absence of sexual risk on either end. It's difficult to describe unless you rarely experience it. (Most people experience it so often they probably would never notice it at all, and might find what I'm saying here to be rather strange.) It's probably, in that way, the relationship the most resembles the chill, pressure-free type of interactions straight people have with their other straight friends. Just a guy being one of the guys. Just a guy being with other guys with no sexuality-based subtext of any kind*.



I will never know what that feels like. And there is loss there. And sometimes sadness because I would really, really like to experience that sometime. (And that is one of hundreds of reasons why being gay is so much more than being addicted to painkillers or really liking to eat cake.)

But it's okay, because I have been blessed with some of the greatest friends (of all the above categories) a person could ever ask for, and that is what life is about--deep, meaningful, genuine, authentic relationships with people you care about. My life is richly blessed in this department. I cannot complain.

*Important note: I don't want people to assume that I am saying that I'm attracted to all guys I interact with. Of course this is not the case. Nor is it the case with any person who has sexual attractions towards any gender. This is really hard for me to explain, but let me ask you to picture the following scenario. Think of a relationship you have had with someone of the opposite gender (if you are straight) where neither of you felt attracted to each other. No matter how unappealing you might find each other at any given moment, the potential still exists for the relationship to become romanticized by one or both of you because of your orientation. This is what I mean by a sexuality-based subtext. There is a basic possibility of attraction that is always looming and ever-present which, in subtle ways, impacts the relationship.

I hope this post answered your question Wyochick. It was a really good one. Thanks for asking it.


31 comments:

  1. All you say is good and interesting. But I want to point out something that has been overlooked here: avoiding solitary encounters with the opposite sex is not merely about attraction - it is about protection from liability.
    My husband does not spend time alone with other women because the wrong woman might try to accuse him of harrassment or even rape.
    I do not spend time alone with other men because doing so opens me up to being sexually harrassed or raped.

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    1. good thoughts, you are right. We also need always avoid things that could "look bad" anything that might ever make anyone wonder...

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  2. Oh Josh, what a wonderful post - thank you so much!

    My religion has a LOT of rules and even when it isn't about social behavior, I totally understand (and appreciate your perspective on) the dynamic when you relinquish some of your own responsibility to act with awareness and wisdom and try to just rely on the rules to carry the day. In the end, people make decisions and life is nearly always more complicated than what we expected.

    And I learn so much from everything you have to say - thank you so much!

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    1. I completely agree--life is rarely as simple as a set of rules. Thanks so much Judith. And can I just say that I have always loved your comments and I appreciate your perspective very much.

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  3. Hey, don't forget about bis and aces! (That's bisexual and asexual, for the benefit of anybody unacquainted with LGBTQA lingo.) Unless you meant to limit your analysis to your own friends, and they all happen to be monosexual.

    So, as I go on with this post, please don't think I'm dissing on a mutually agreed upon general rule like this if both partners feel good about it.

    Fully concur, but I hope that the acceptance would be reciprocated. A relationship with a person who classified my or their friends by gender and forbid me or themselves from being alone with others would be a non-starter for me, but your experiences as a therapist aided me in understanding why others would benefit from rigid boundaries. People and relationships have their unique needs, and I wish people would be less judgmental of those that differ from their own.

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  4. I'm a person who likes to assume the best in others. I generally assume that people are well-meaning, moral beings and largely I am proven right. I would hate to go through life restricting all my interactions through fear that others might abuse me or accuse me of nefarious deeds. I couldn't live with that level of distrust.
    I have known female friends to have been left walking in the rain, or carrying heavy bags because a brother in the church has a rule about not giving rides to single women. I would be horrified if my husband behaved like that, and indeed I know he wouldn't because he is a gentleman. I would see a regular car-share with another woman as a more 'risky' set-up and would therefore be a situation which we would discuss should it ever arise.
    I have dear friends who are guys. Some of our friendships with other couples have developed more because of the cross-gender friendships than the same-gender ones, and with our very closest friends all four of us have beautiful individual friendships. I have another dear male friend (of mine and my husband's although I've known him for longer) who I've been desperate to marry off for years mostly for his own happiness but partly for the selfish reason that it's much easier for a married couple to hang out with another married couple. With the former guy I have, for example, taken all our kids on a day trip to London when his wife and my husband were unable to make it (and we were running out of time to see the 'I'm a Mormon' advertising blitz). With the second guy, I have enjoyed many dances at the modern jive dance evenings that we and he used to go to.
    I feel no sexual attraction to either of these friends and I don't flatter myself that they find me irresistible either. I have no fear that they are about to make spurious allegations of harassment either. I know I am trustworthy, and I trust my character judgement and believe them to be trustworthy too.
    So basically, I'm saying that the no-friends-of-the-opposite-gender rule would not appeal to me. I don't consider it necessary or desirable. It would - what's the opposite of enrich? - it would do that to my life.
    Josh, I agree that being mindful and self-aware is the best policy whatever your orientation. I confessed to my husband that I found a guy who just moved into our ward rather dishy. Physically attractive, witty, intelligent, all of that. I immediately told my husband so that I would then be conscious of how any interaction appeared to my him, propriety would be maintained at all times and there would be little possibility of 'rather dishy' becoming full-blown crush. My husband teased me gently once or twice but the level of trust between us is such that it has never, ever been an issue. (Besides, he has now moved to California *sigh* ;) )
    Just in case anyone is wondering - nearly 18 years married and our marriage goes from strength to strength.

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  5. Thanks Josh! As LDSSSA (I couldn't resist throwing all those s's together) I had been wondering about a lot of these things myself. I've got a lot to consider now.

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    1. What does that acronym stand for? Latter Day Saints…. SSA?

      Us Orthodox Jewish folk have FFB (frum (religious) from birth), BT (Ba'al teshuvah, someone who became religious later in life), OTD (Off the derech/path, someone raised religious who no longer is), and FFBWB (frum from birth with break).

      Something like that?

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    2. Latter Day Saint with same sex attraction

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  6. Josh, I love your honesty here. I feel like I understand your point of view completely. It makes sense to me. But it makes me sad.

    I realize that I'll be a tiny minority voice in this discussion, considering the probability that most of your readers are religious like you, but since this blog challenges people to think in new ways about human relating, I figured this wouldn't be completely anathema: Extra-marital sexuality is only devastating to a marriage if one or both spouses buy into the monogamy model.

    I hate phrases like "open marriage" and "polyamory," but the fact is that many people remain happily married while also establishing other rewarding love/sexual relationships. If your post shows anything, it's that sexual attraction outside of a marriage is inevitable. In your model, however, that means that you must close the door on potentially amazing relationships.

    I feel like life must be about experience, and love and sex are a huge part of human experience. To close yourself off to all the many loving relationships you could encounter in your life because you've committed yourself to a single person strikes me as a regrettable betrayal of the almost universal human veneration of love as a virtue.

    I realize that most religions lay down strict laws preventing this, but until I see a better reason than "because my book says so," it will be very hard for me to understand why people close themselves off to love. And sex. And experience in general.

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    1. Your well-articulated views are germane to poly people who, as you put it, "buy into the monogamy model" due to religious or social pressures. However, many people are not polyamorous by nature, even if they are attracted to multiple people. As a monoamorous person, I'm no more "closing myself off" to love and sex with other people than a straight man who only dates women is "closing himself off" to love and sex with men.

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    2. I can't stand it when people try to summarize religion with phrases like "because my book says so." It's about so much more than just the book. It's because my God says so. The being who created me and loves me, gave me a boundary to protect me. I believe all His commandments are for our benefit, because He knows what will make us happiest in the long run. I can't give you any proof. Wouldn't it be sad for you to miss out on an eternity of happiness just because you couldn't have any proof? I guess we'll all see in the end which of us has true, lasting joy.

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    3. http://www.faithit.com/john-mark-comer-biblical-talk-sex-purity-beauty-love/
      thought this might help in understanding. It is hard to get to deep intimacy with someone if you are splitting yourself among others. Think how much a couple has gone through who has been together for 50 years. They have worked through so much together that their intimacy level is so much greater then someone who jumps around. But the jumper will never understand that as they are to busy jumping around to ever know something they can't comprehend.

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    4. STDs are one reason I think a rational human could see scientific proof of the advantages of monogamy. It's a healthier lifestyle.

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  7. I must second Anonymous comments about liability. I know certain people have taken the "avoid even the appearance of evil" principle of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 a bit to the extreme, but surely this needs to be talked about in this context. I know certain people in my groups who would have been scandalized (perhaps not rightly so, or perhaps rightly) if that late night study session/conversation, however innocent, happened between a man and woman, no matter the marriage status of the people involved. Whether you like it or not, your status as a openly gay man in the LDS church makes it more critical that you conduct yourself above reproach. I'm not trying to implicate you; far from it, your post indicates that you have thought carefully and come to agreement with Lolly concerning these issues.

    So I would like to know, how do you as an openly gay man hold yourself above reproach in these gray areas. Also, and actually more interesting to me, I know pastors who conduct themselves with all due caution when they counsel members of the opposite sex; do you feel this same sense of extreme caution as a gay therapist in counseling members of the same (or both) genders?

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  8. I really enjoyed this. And I love how you suggest that we discuss all of our relationships instead of just a blanket rule. I have thought about this topic a lot lately because of our relationship with Juanita. (for those of you who don't know) Juanita is a class mate of my husband at his PA school (two year masters program). When they began the class a year ago, they discovered that we live near each other and she offered to car pool with JT. I forgot to mention she is a Lesbian in a happy, committed relationship:) Most of our friends were skeptical when I mentioned that they were going to ride together. In fact, I was skeptic at first as well. "What if she couldn't resist his charm and he turned her straight?!" or "what if he can't resist her charm and he falls in love with a Lesbian?!" Anyways, we decided together that we would try it out and see how it went. And I am so grateful that we did. She and her partner have become dear friends to us and our understandings of each other have grown. She recently told me about a discussion she had where she defended Mormons, something she would have never done without getting to know my husband. We have been very blessed by having a relationship with her. I am not saying we throw all caution to the wind and forget boundaries. But I love the concept of our boundaries being decided together and allowing for exceptions that will bless us.

    PS I am glad that you and JT have become such good friends. I am so glad that you can have male friends who love you and value you, without any fears or apprehension. And I am also very grateful for Lolly for being so grounded and self aware. She is amazing. I have alway admired her ability to share you with her friends, without jealousy or reservation. You guys really have an amazing marriage. :)

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  9. Even though I am single, I've had to consider this myself as an active LDS woman primarily attracted to other women, friends with primarily married couples, and I have come to the same conclusion. I love my gay guy friends because it is kind of a free area whithout the usual stress of everything you just hashed out. I need all of my friendships, and I have found that my being honest with myself and others about how I am feeling about things has made most relationships stronger. I have also learned though, that I can't tell how other people are feeling, and to as certain degree, I just have to trust them to be honest back. Its important to not isolate yourself, and to balance that with requiste caution about where you are, what you are doing, and how it may appear, or how it may make you or others feel. It is a lot of work and honesty, but I am much happier and have deeper friendships since switching to this sort of self-aware approach. Thanks for talking about this, and giving me a "second witness" to my own experiences.

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    1. So that's why all the obnoxious gay guys I know get to hang out with girls, who typically have conversations more interesting than the ones boys have with each other, but I don't. Don't you love it? Women act like straight men have no emotional depth and can't discuss certain topics without becoming sexually attracted, so they fall back to the easy choice of only talking to gay boys.

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  10. Interesting post, Josh. It helps straight people understand a little bit better the challenges you face--not like an addiction, or like someone with kleptomania or any number of challenges people may face in mortality. Thanks for answering an interesting question. Much food for thought at usual!

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  11. Hi Josh- I totally agree. I wanted to share my experience with the topic-

    I struggle with same sex attraction, and I am married to a woman. Personally I have found my boundary is that I have to back away from male friendships, if I start feeling attracted to my guy friend.

    On one hand, I need male friendships. A deep part of me needs to connect with other guys, to fill the need for brotherhood, and on a deeper level approval. But, at the same time I need to protect my marriage and be faithful to my wife.

    I need male friendships to heal my deep heart issues. But it is a complicated, and painful process. It takes a lot of understanding, compassion, and yes, even love from the friend to meet me where I am at.

    For those who can't relate- It is a bit like a bird that never learned to fly. They feel the need to soar but can't quite get up in the air.

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  12. Josh, I think this is one of the best of your serious posts.

    Sigh, as a socially isolated person (maybe something to do with my Autism Spectrum Disorder) I don't even come close to the possibility of sexuality becoming a problem. Because I don't have friendships in the first place.
    However, I do have one friend, male (i'm a girl). We exercise self-restraint (he has a girlfriend), and have worked out a system regulating the way in which we have contact. I thank God for my friend. If he wasn't willing to take the slight risk of friendship, I would be alone (apart from my relationship with God.)

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  13. Thank you for answering my question! Once again, you have given me better insight into others, and hopefully, more compassion and understanding. Thank you for being an open book!

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  14. Josh, long-time reader, first-time commenter here. :-)

    I like reading your posts because they provide me with a perspective I don't have much exposure to. (I'm not religious, I currently live in a very secular country, and I'm in a committed same-sex relationship.) It's always interesting to read how you handle the intersection of your faith with the rest of your life. In this case, I'm sort of blown away. I had no idea that this was a thing in modern America -- that people would have gender-based boundaries on their friendships outside of their main relationship. Today I learned!

    I can just imagine how some readers of this blog might then be equally blown away by the rules (or lack there-of!) in a relationship like mine. I just hope everyone follows your advice about communicating within a relationship, regardless of what boundaries are set.

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  15. Being homosexual, LDS, and married, myself, I have found that my attraction to women is a gift. A lot of women struggle to WANT to be in friendships with each other. There's a lot of cattiness, competition, and jealousy. I personally feel that my same-sex attraction was given to me as a gift to love women. To love them all! No matter their quirks or gifts they were given that I wasn't. My sexual attraction is a gift that I have been entrusted by God to use wisely. I am not to engage in sexual relationships with women, but can I love them? Absolutely!

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  16. Thank you for emphasizing that personal responsibility is not just about following rules. It about holding yourself accountable, even on the inside (perhaps especially on the inside). As a woman in business with a husband in family therapy, it would not be possible for us to follow the "never alone with the opposite sex" rule. I have been in work groups and gone on business trips with all men, and he has taken classes and been on research teams of all women, not to mention therapy clients. We have followed the same guidelines in terms of being open and honest with each other about all our interactions. In fact, having interacted with men who refuse to speak to me alone or give me a ride home from a meeting with all other men, I am grateful that my husband treats the women in his work groups like equals and is able to form meaningful, though always appropriate, relationships with them. I have felt at times demeaned and disrespected by men who seemed to be only able to think of me (their classmate or coworker) as a "potential sex temptation." That is insulting, and I would never want my husband to treat a woman that way.

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  17. I have to ask. Often in the male dominated field I work in you have business lunches with opposite sex clients or a partner alone. How would this work? How could you tell your client you can't meet them for lunch?

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  18. I just read this post and found it to be a very interesting and enlightening view of friendships. I am married but have come to the realization that I am also mostly asexual (physically that is, I am incredibly emotionally and intellectually attracted to my husband which means I am happy to have a great sex life with him) so I have never been attracted to any of my male friends (or female for that matter). After reading this article, I realized that although this is a win-win for my marriage, my husband might actually be attracted to other women too. Now I think I should open that discussion with him and see where it leads. Thanks for the good communication ideas!

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  19. I have tried something similar. My husband is very loyal and i in no way question his fidelity or motives, but he is also very unfamiliar with female thought/emotional process. He is really funny and social but also very compassionate and easy to talk to. He find him self in these awkward situations with women because of this (and the fact that he used to be executive secretary) women seem to want to bear their souls to him, and he feels like he's just being a good friend when he listens etc. he has had 3 female friends separate/divorce in 5 years. One boldly tried to seduce him. One got extremely emotional when his job transferred departments. One left the father of her kids only to go back later. Hubby was totally surprised every time! He just doesn't understand how easy it is for women who feel neglected or mistreated our otherwise unhappy in their marriages to be attracted to this sweet compassionate man, or at the very least to feel more dissatisfied with their own in comparison. I feel bad always following up on him, but I can't seem to get through to him either.

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