Father Tony

A Snake Charmer?

Filed By Father Tony | February 12, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: body art, surprising your lover, tattoo

Dear Father Tony,

Last week, I did something I have wanted to do for years. I did it while my partner was away on business for a week. I got my first tattoo. It's a really sensuous green serpent that winds around my shoulder and ends with its forked tongue flicking my nipple. I decided that I would do this as a surprise for my partner, "J", but when I came home and revealed it, "J" went through the roof.

Furious that I did this secretly without sharing the idea. We had a huge fight. It's not over. I think I have a right to my own body and what goes on it. I had always pictured my lover's hands moving over my body following the serpent down to my nipple. Well I don't think that's ever going to happen and the whole thing is ruined. Was I wrong to do this? I don't think so, but what do I do to fix this mess?

My Bad?

Dear MB,

Oh my. You've really gone and done something that is rather irreversible, haven't you? Although it is my understanding that ink can be removed, I think there is always some palimpsest of the scrubbed image. Plus, you are right to suspect that the memory of the argument may always deflate the shared enjoyment you had envisioned.

What is most interesting to me is that nowhere in your letter do I receive any indication of your sex, your age or the length of your partnership. Did you conceal those things on purpose? Nevermind. Only one of those three, the length of your partnership, is important.

I think you made a big mistake by not involving your partner in the process of getting this tattoo. I also think that claiming to have rights over your own body is not an applicable argument in this case.

If your partner had demanded that you get a tattoo, you would certainly have the right to refuse on the grounds that your body is indeed your own, but you should have enlisted your partner in the excitement you felt in planning this.

I think you should have said "Honey, you know I've always wanted a tattoo. I want to get one in the week that you are gone. I have a design in mind but I want it to be a surprise. OK?"

Or, you could have gotten you partner's complete participation in the design/selection and execution of the art. That certainly would have eliminated any possible argument.

Don't you just hate it when you think your partner is going to be thrilled with something you did and it turns out that they are just totally not? That seems to be what happened here, or did you know your partner would protest the tattoo and did you deliberately keep it a secret because of that?

You and your partner now have to come to terms with something that is not going away. This will take work. Apologize profusely. Show your regret. Talk it out. Give it time. And someday, with luck, when you are making love, you will place your partner's hand on the serpent and move those fingers along the image all the way to your nipple. Your partner should get the idea and the heat of the moment should prevail. With work, you'll be able to turn a bad memory into a shared delight.


And for the record, I'm guessing you both are a fairly new couple. If you can survive this unfortunate turn of events, I hope you will use it to understand each other more deeply so that you don't repeat the same mistake again. And whatever you do, don't try to make amends by surprising your partner with an "I love you, J" tattoo.


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My boyfriend talked for years of getting a sort of commemorative tattoo on his leg in Hebrew text. When he resolved to finally do it, we agonized over fonts and size for six months. I even attempted several recreations using a Sharpie on his leg to ensure our satisfaction and conviction of the final design. Once sorted, he took the day off work to have it done, and I went to my office. At the last minute on the table at the tattoo parlor, he decided to change the font to something more cartoony; a design that was never even on our list of options. What I beheld that evening horrified and angered me for days.

It took a little over a month of fuming and venting before I would look at it without averting my eyes. Shortly thereafter, it began to look good on him. Then, I found myself drawn to it. It didn't take much longer before I was completely into it on all levels. These days, it's not uncommon for me to lick or push myself against it.

Even with the best intentions and planning, things can go wrong. Keep hope alive, mate. Perhaps J will turn a corner towards favoring your ink in the near future.

Dear Dingo,
Nothing speaks more strongly than experience. I hope "My Bad?" is reading.

I have perhaps always been rather "willful", but I get My Bad's annoyance at his/her partner and were this a woman the argument would likely end there, because no evolved gentleman or lesbian would ever suggest that he/she had control of a woman's body.

At heart are issues of control, where one partner thinks the partnership bonds absolves them of recognition that slavery is no longer legal. J needs to f-ing deal. I have my doubts as to whether this was never discussed before; more than likely it may have been a willful F You to the partner, but again, like the song goes "You don't own me." The partner is reacting like a jealous husband berating his partner for a breach of some marriage vow, not ink. It's not in the same realm. Would it have been nice to have discussed it before hand? Yeah, but if someone told me no, I don't have the right to do with my own body as I choose, I will point out the door and how to use it.

I take offense at the implication that if it's a man's body then the rules of body-control go out the window. I have always thought it awesome when the Man gets his just desserts, but men and women are all people and people, regardless of sex, should be treated fairly. That goes both ways.

And Alex is right: If someone has the right to do whatever they want with their own body then they must respect the right of their partner to disengage from a relationship with someone that they either no longer find attractive or don't feel respects their feelings.

Hopefully the situation will resolve as Dingo's did.

It's a bizarrely-written email; you're right. Not only does she go to lengths not to disclose her own gender, she goes even further into grammatically awkward territory to hide her partner's (I'm just saying "her" because the English language requires a gender pronoun there).

I think you made a big mistake by not involving your partner in the process of getting this tattoo. I also think that claiming to have rights over your own body is not an applicable argument in this case.

Absolutely. We're overly-reliant in the US on rights discourse (the French are too!): I have the right to speak whenever, you don't have the right to the armrest between the seats at the movie theater, blah blah blah. It makes us all the more impoverished in the end because some people truly think every human interaction is a legal contract, and then they annoy us in the end with their nattering about rights.

I think you're right, Tony, that this person waited until her partner was away to get the tattoo because she already knew that her partner wouldn't like it. I suppose that's her partner's right as well, since no one has the right to force her to like something she doesn't like!

Apologize profusely? For what? It's the partner who should apologize for being such an ass. Does this person also have to get pre-approval for what he decides to wear every day, or eat, or listen to on his iPod?

In my experience, the hardest realization in an intimate relationship is that your partner is not you. Just because you've changed all your pronouns to "we," doesn't mean that you aren't still two separate people. Not only do you not own him or her but you don't know him or her as well as you may sometimes think you do. The process of getting to know him or her never ends, and that doesn't need to be a source of anxiety, it can be a source of wonder and joy.

Dear GoLikewater,
Nothing will be a source of "wonder and joy" until some work gets done with these two. In this case, an apology looks forward, not back. "My Bad's" apology acknowledges that the future happiness of the partner is more important than the tattoo. Both of them need to get to the root of the unspoken issues of control and sharing and independence etc.

Does this person also have to get pre-approval for what he decides to wear every day, or eat, or listen to on his iPod?

C'mon! It's a tattoo, not a Big Mac! And while the latter is definitely something to be ashamed of, it's not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

If two people want to share their lives, the least they can do is inform one another of big decisions.

Alex, you always amaze me. I can never predict where you're going to fall on an issue. I love it when you agree with me!

And just last week I had several commenters call me predictable. One even said that he came to TBP looking for me to take a specific side on a specific issue (actually, it was like 3 weeks ago), and I happened to have done it. I honestly think I'm a lot more boring than I let on!

Plus I usually agree with your advice column, because even if I don't at the beginning, you usually convince. :)

It read to me like My Bad snuck off to do something his/her partner would object to.

I'm curious about the age and class and cultural background of My Bad and his control-freak, er, partner. There are people for whom tattoos are still very transgressive and others for whom they're no different than pierced ears. Speaking of which, do you think My Bad should have to ask permission to get his ears pierced? Where do you draw the line? One person's "big deal" is another's "whatever."

For instance, I would love it if a boyfriend came home with a surprise tattoo, but the Big Mac would probably make me question the relationship. (I'm totally serious.)

Overall, I think relationships are more stable when partners let each other be.

Dear GLW, Your last comment makes me curious about whether you yourself have ever been in a lengthy relationship. What is bigger than the holding or relinquishing of control is the matter of shared major decisions and experiences. In good partnerships, the major moments ought to be shared. When one party doesn't realize that, the other party is hurt and feels relegated to some lesser position in his/her partner's life.
To clarify: "My Bad" should not have had to ask permission for the tattoo, but he/she should have made it a joint/shared adventure.

Also, people who have a lengthy laundry list of "deal breakers" tend to single more than often than coupled. The perfectly made bed is often occupied by one alone.

Father Tony, I was in a 6-year relationship in my 20s, and a 10 year relationship in my 30s. I'm still very close to both men.

We can go round and around here about what is appropriate and what is not, what partners should and shouldn't do, but there are always going to be moments when your partner does something that surprises you and reminds you that he or she is a free agent and might not always do what you would like for him or her to do. Demanding apologies, creating a lot of drama, just deepens the insecurity and widens the rift.

People we love don't always meet our expectations. That's life. Sometimes our feelings get hurt. Forgive and move on.

Just as a little background, I have been together with my partner for 12 years, we are male, I am 44, he is 38. We have lived together for 11 years. I would never think for one second that he needed my permission to get a tattoo. I think Father Tony is way off on this one.

In a perfect world, yeah, one could have mentioned it and I bet it was based on the tone of the e-mail, but obviously not in a direct manner. But if my partner wanted a tattoo, I might say that it's not what I would have gotten, but I never would forbid him from doing it and it wouldn't jeopardize our relationship.

We do not own each other, and I agree with the above poster who thought this was all about control issues. I have friends like the girlfriend that go so far as to dictate when one can get a haircut. It drives me nuts, but I suspect that the dynamic is integral to their relationship.

It's a little hard for me to imagine any gay relationship of any endurance where the subject of ink has never been discussed. It's possible that MB heard J remark any number of times about someone else's hot tattoo. On the other hand, it's possible that MB heard J call tattoos tacky.

Still, I just can't see why a surprise tattoo should be such a big issue. If my partner came home with a tattoo (admittedly very unlikely), I'd be shocked, but I certainly wouldn't be angry. If I liked it, I'd be excited, and if I didn't like it, I'd lie and say I did because, after all, it's not like he could change it.

I really do think that ink is a personal choice, unless you choose to have "I'm with stupid" and an arrow tattooed on your chest. You give up some of your freedom when you enter into a relationship, but you don't give up that much.

This reminds me of when I got my funpart pierced. On my birthday, a day off from work, I took the half-hour to get it done as a whim of a gift to myself. Never discussed it with my husband (actually never seriously considered doing it at all), only because before that day it was in that mountain of a Thousand Dreams, all the forks in the road I hadn't selected in living a life. Deciding to do it that day was like deciding to stop by the bodega for fresh milk and bread.

Like many married couples, love-making had moved to a more spiritual plane years earlier. One surprising afternoon, we decided to revisit our more tactile ways, like when we were new.

After a few months with the metal, I forgot to remember he'd never seen it hanging there, so he literally met it face on. I remember him saying "Oh my" before we exchanged glances and before he went down on it. Later he asked when I had it done, and if I thought I should have asked him to go along.

Why did My Bad write to Tony? I wonder if his partner asked anyone for advice. My first lover wanted a say in all my decisions, and regularly used disapproval to exert his influence. He would have gone crazy seeing what I elected to do.

Personally, I'd let things play out naturally. Boomers rate events like this with more importance than the younger guys. No idea where My Bad falls in time, but I'm certain the tattoo isn't the problem...

I think My Bad should buy a black tank-top and wear it frequently.

Dear Ashe,
Adroit and valuable commentary is all I ever expect from you. Thanks for the speaking up.